Intern in Lion Attack Died of Broken Neck

PHOTO: This undated photo provided by Paul Hanson shows his sister, Dianna Hanson. Dianna Hanson, a 24-year-old intern at the Cat Haven in Dunlap, Calif., was mauled to death by a lion at the exotic animal park on Wednesday, March 6, 2013.
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Dianna Hanson, the 24-year-old intern killed by a lion inside an enclosure at a big cat sanctuary in California, died of a broken neck, a Fresno County coroner revealed today.

The coroner said that Hanson died instantly and that the 4-year-old male African lion named Cous Cous caused additional wounds to the woman's body after her death.

The body of the 500-pound lion, shot dead after killing Hanson, is now at a vet facility in Tulare County awaiting a necropsy to determine what may have caused the fatal attack.

Hanson was two months into an internship program at the Cat Haven in Dunlap, a small town in Fresno County near King's Canyon National Park, when she was killed.

"Even though she was only with us for a little over two months, she was part of our family," said Wendy Debbas, the president of Project Survival Cat Haven, a non-profit group associated with the sanctuary. "She made instant friendships with everybody up here. Everybody loved her.

"She has songs she made up for each of the cats," Debbas told reporters this evening. "A cute example of that is we have jaguar cubs named Samba and Rose. Samba's song was not 'La Bamba' but 'La Samba.' And Rose was 'Kissed by a Rose.' And she had songs like that for all of the cats. She was vivacious. She loved her work. She loved big cats."

Hanson's father said today that she never feared working with big cats, but he always feared something might happen to her.

"Anybody who works with cats knows that they are wild animals and they can turn even on people closest to them. So I always had this horrible, nagging premonition that I would get a call like this," Hanson's father, Paul, told ABC News overnight by phone from his home in Washington state.

Hanson said his daughter loved to be around big cats and that working with them was her true passion in life.

Dianna Hanson was inside the cat enclosure when a Cous Cous attacked her around 12:30 p.m., officials said. It was not immediately clear what Hanson was doing inside the enclosure or what prompted the attack.

Another employee tried unsuccessfully to lure Cous Cous away from Hanson and into another enclosure.

Less than 30 minutes after Hanson entered the cage, Cous Cous was shot by a Fresno County sheriff's deputy who responded to a call, authorities said.

"The lion was shot and killed per our safety protocols," Dale Anderson, founder and executive director of Project Survival Cat Haven, which manages Cat Haven, said Wednesday.

The park was closed at the time of the attack.

Hanson's grief-stricken father is now left with the question of why his daughter was in the enclosure with the lion.

"How she ever got inside the cage and why she would be inside the cage [is unclear], because I thought she made it real clear that they don't let anybody in the cage except the owner," Paul Hanson said.

In a statement on Facebook, Hanson reflected on his daughter's time working at the sanctuary.

"Once there, she gave me the tour and showed me all the big cats there with which she would be working. Of course, Dianna being Dianna, her favorites were the tiger and the lion ... who killed her today," he said.

Dianna Hanson trained with three tigers and a lion while in college at Western Washington State University. She also traveled to Africa to work with large cats, Paul Hanson said.

"Di, we will always love you. And we will miss you so much. But I know that you will be happy. For now, you truly are in the eternal 'Cat Haven,'" Paul Hanson said in the statement.

The sanctuary will remain closed to the public today.

Cous Cous was raised at the preserve from 8 weeks old, and even made an appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" when he was a cub.

Cat Haven was founded in 1993 and is run by Project Survival, a privately funded education and conservation organization.

The 100-acre facility is home to a variety of wild cats -- including tigers, leopards and other threatened and endangered species that are kept for limited breeding and use in educational programs, according to Cat Haven's website.

Officials said the park has had a good history, and had an active permit to operate.

Cat Haven also runs an outreach program, and its "cat ambassadors" may sometimes be taken off-site to make appearances as part of that program, according to the website.

The preserve is run by a core staff supported by volunteers.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that an internship is required by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in order to work at an AZA-accredited zoo or aquarium. No such requirement is in place, according to AZA Senior Vice President Steve Feldman.

ABC News' Larry Dechant and Suzan Clarke contributed to this report.

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