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Strict rules at Safari West on handling big cats

Safari West safety coordinator Leslie Thalman, right, pets Thula,while hoofstock supervisor Nikki Smith pets Gijima, after feeding the two cheetahs their evening meal Friday at Safari West, near Santa Rosa. Workers enter the cheetah habitat in pairs. They pet the hand-raised cheetahs to keep them accustomed to being handled by humans.

CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat
Published: Friday, March 8, 2013 at 7:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 8, 2013 at 7:06 p.m.

Nobody gets to touch the big cats at Safari West without years of experience and supervision, cheetah handler and safety coordinator Leslie Thalman says.

"Each cat is handled differently; it's a matter of time and training," she said. "It's species by species, sometimes even individual by individual."

The Sonoma County wildlife park doesn't have any of the potentially man-eating lions like the one that killed a 24-year-old intern at a park in Fresno County this week, Thalman said Friday, but that doesn't mean her staff doesn't take extreme care with the exotic animals they do have, including cheetahs, foxes and servals, an African cat that can reach 35 pounds.

"Even something relatively small can do a lot of damage if you don't handle it right," she said.

Authorities still haven't said why a lion named Cous Cous killed intern Dianna Hanson at the Fresno County park Wednesday as she was cleaning the animal's pen. The coroner says she died of a broken neck.

Sheriff's deputies shot and killed the lion when handlers were unable to lure it away from Hanson's body as rescuers tried to get to her, though later investigation by the coroner suggests it was already too late to save her at that point.

"It's very sad. I am acquainted with the owners, and they are very conscientious people," Thalman said. "It's just heartbreaking; it's your worst nightmare."

Safari West has never had serious animal-related injuries to staff or guests, Thalman said, though every animal handler learns to expect minor scrapes and injuries.

"The protocols we have in place are pretty strict," she said, but an incident like the one in Fresno "certainly makes everyone more sensitive."

Guests are never allowed to come in contact with most of Safari West's animals, particularly the big cats, she said. Staff is allowed only limited contact; the bigger the animal, the smaller the number of people who are allowed into the cage.

New employees start by handling the smallest predators, the foxes, and only under direct supervision. If they demonstrate care and a strict adherence to the rules, they are allowed to progress to larger animals.

Only Thalman and a handful of veterans are allowed to interact directly with the largest cats, the five cheetahs. In the wild, cheetahs are shy and prone to run away when confronted by larger animals or humans, but they are strong enough to inflict damage if startled into lashing out.

"We never forget or get complacent that something that is hand-raised can be startled by something outside the exhibit," she said.

Three of the cheetahs, the females, all have been hand-raised, and Thalman has known them since they were cubs. Those three tend to be affectionate and occasionally like to be petted. The two males, however, were acquired at an older age and are not as acclimated to humans. Nobody ever attempts to pet them, she said.

Handling potentially dangerous animals requires an intimate knowledge of not just the characteristics of the species but the personalities, moods, and quirks of each creature, she said. Just as parents can read the moods of their children, she said, handlers can sense the moods of the animals and approach them — or avoid them — accordingly.

"We let them call the shots," she said.

Thalman said she has not heard guests discussing the Fresno lion attack, but she has over the years had people ask why they cannot pet the big cats at Safari West.

"We tell them we are not a petting zoo," she said. "We like to keep our animals a little more wild. ... We just let them know that this is about the animal's comfort, and they pretty much accept it."

The 400-acre Safari West compound was established in 1989 by Peter Lang, the son of film and TV director Otto Lang. The elder Lang worked with exotic animals on several of his projects, including episodes of the TV show "Daktari," a series in the 1960s set at an animal study center in Africa.

Safari West has about 700 animals representing 80 species, including birds from all over the world and mammals from Africa. The owners offer tours to the public and education programs for students from around the region.

Although there have been no major injuries, the staff conducts drills and prepares for emergencies often, she said.

"We think about these things all the time when we have a facility like this," she said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.)

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