Questions over why handler was alone with cougar

Questions over why handler was alone with cougar »Play Video
"No trespassing" signs posted at WildCat Haven.

SHERWOOD, Ore. – When deputies first arrived at the WildCat Haven animal sanctuary on Saturday evening the owner was distraught as he explained that one of his employees had been attacked by a cougar.

The cat killed Renee Radziwon-Chapman, a longtime employee of the sanctuary. According to the incident report, owner Michael Tuller told deputies that Radziwon-Chapman should have never been in a position where she could be attacked.

“Tuller told me this should have never happened and they always go into the cages in a pairs,” a deputy wrote in the report.

Investigators and officials at the sanctuary haven’t said if they know why Radziwon-Chapman was in the cougar enclosure alone. Doing so would have gone against the facility’s protocols.

That has others who work with big animals wondering how and why this attack happened.

Cheryl Jones and Steve Higgs own “A Walk on the Wild Side,” a facility in Canby that invites the public to come see their animals, unlike WildCat Haven.

They said any handler should have at least 1,000 hours of training. Radziwon-Chapman’s family said she had over 20 years of experience working with large cats and other animals. She had worked at WildCat Haven for six years, investigators said.

Both Higgs and Jones thinks there must be more to this story than investigators are releasing.

“I think she would know better than to ever go in by herself,” Jones said.

She added that ultimately the owner of any wildlife facility is responsible for the wellbeing of employees and guests.

“We are responsible for everybody that comes to our facility’s life and safety. That’s even if you get scratched,” Jones said.

Higgs and Jones use a so-called “lockout” procedure when entering the cages of large animals, such as their lions. WildCat Haven said they also had a similar lockout procedure in place.

During a lockout, the cats are transferred to a separate cage so they’re never in the same enclosure as the handler.

“It is believed that Radziwon-Chapman was alone at the sanctuary and alone in the enclosure with cats, who had not been shifted into the lockout area,” WildCat Haven officials said in a statement.

At A Walk on the Wild Side, for example, handlers work in teams and carry strong mace that could buy them precious time in an emergency.

“It will give you about five minutes to get the heck out,” Jones said.

Officials at the animal sanctuary did not offer any public comment beyond their prepared statement.

Oregon OSHA will investigate

A Nov. 20, 2012 inspection by the U.S. Agriculture Department didn't find any problems at WildCat Haven.

State work and safety inspectors will be at the site Tuesday, looking into details contained in the sheriff's report.

Investigators will look at workplace safety guidelines every employer is required to have and whether those were followed or flawed. 

"We'll be talking to employees, or potential witnesses," said Melanie Mesaros of Oregon OSHA. "We'll be looking at safety protocols. Supervision and training. And any other information we might get from evidence."

Even though this case involves an animal attack, and not a piece of machinery in a typical workplace accident, OSHA investigators believe they'll still be able to figure out how the attack happened based on the evidence at the scene and the written safety guidelines kept at the WildCat Haven sanctuary.

KATU On Your Side Investigator Bob Heye contributed to this report.