PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon safety officials have fined a suburban Portland wild cat sanctuary $5,600 for two serious violations, one of which likely contributed to an employee being mauled to death by a cougar.
The state's Occupational Safety and Health Division found WildCat Haven violated its two-person safety procedure by allowing employees to work alone with the wild cats on a frequent basis.
The sanctuary's protocol calls for two qualified workers inside an enclosure containing animals. Renee Radziwon-Chapman was killed at the sanctuary while working alone, cleaning a large cougar enclosure.
The facility's co-owner Michael Tuller discovered her bloodied inside the enclosure, with two cougars roaming nearby unsecured and a third cougar locked in a smaller cage inside the enclosure.
The 36-year-old wife and new mother had worked as an animal care technician and head keeper at the sanctuary for eight years. After Radziwon-Chapman's death, her mother Carol Radziwon told The Associated Press the young woman had expressed concerns about safety measures at the facility.
The OSHA investigation uncovered cellphone messages indicating Radziwon-Chapman "had spoken to owner Cheryl Tuller on numerous occasions just prior to the attack about the need for more help."
"This organization didn't have a large number of employees and it had allowed other people to work alone with the cats in the past," said Michael Wood, Oregon OSHA administrator. "The employers clearly knew the keeper was working alone. It was a frequent occurrence, it happened with some regularity."
Wood said the penalty was small, but it was the maximum fine for this size of employer.
Investigators also found the latches on the smaller cage where cougars were locked out of the larger enclosure to be inadequately designed. The "light duty substandard gate latch" was designed for easy operation in backyards, but was "inappropriate for securing dangerous cougars," investigators wrote, because it can fail and inadvertently pop open if not fully closed.
To secure those inadequate latches, workers had to enter the large enclosure and hook a carabiner over each latch. "In doing so," OSHA said, "they were exposed to cougars who were housed in a lockout that was not fully secured."
Radziwon-Chapman had not secured a carabiner on the day she was mauled to death.
But investigators concluded the substandard latch did not contribute to the keeper's death, Wood said. Instead, he said investigators believe two of the cougars were never locked in the smaller cage. He said investigators came to that conclusion because they found signs indicating the keeper had begun the work of cleaning the enclosure.
Wood said there is also a possibility that the two cats got out of the smaller cage due to substandard locks, but that scenario was less likely.
Sanctuary lawyer Dale Johnson said in a statement that both of the violations have already been addressed.
"Because of the hazards of providing sanctuary to wild animals that are both compelling and unpredictable, our greatest priority is to develop and ensure compliance with fail-proof safety procedures," the statement said.
WildCat Haven is a nonprofit that rescues wild animals such as cougars, bobcats, tigers, and other wild cats. It currently houses about 65 animals. The sanctuary is 17 miles south of Portland, in a secluded, wooded area. It is closed to the public but can conduct tours for donors.
The company has 30 days to appeal the citation.