PORTLAND — The owners of a suburban Portland wild cat sanctuary where a longtime employee was mauled to death by a cougar this weekend said Tuesday that a gate to a smaller cage where the animals should’ve been locked up was operating properly.
WildCat Haven in Sherwood said its head keeper, Renee Radziwon-Chapman, 36, of Portland, broke safety protocols that call for two qualified workers to lock the animals out of a large enclosure and into the smaller cage before a keeper enters the empty main space to clean or make repairs.
Instead, sanctuary lawyer Dale Johnson said, it appears Radziwon-Chapman worked alone, locked only one of three cougars in the smaller cage, and went into the main enclosure with the other two cougars.
According to the Clackamas County sheriff’s report, WildCat Haven owner Michael Tuller discovered Radziwon-Chapman bloodied and lying on her back inside the enclosure at about 7 p.m. Saturday — about two hours after her shift should have been over.
Two cougars were found roaming freely in the main enclosure, and another was secured in the smaller, 15-by-15 cage within it.
Johnson said the facility owners still don’t know whether one or two cougars attacked the woman.
Radziwon-Chapman died at the scene of multiple bite wounds, autopsy results showed. Her family said they don’t believe the wife and new mother broke any rules, and she had expressed concerns about working alone just days before the attack.
Tuller also told investigators that Radziwon-Chapman should never have brought a hose inside the enclosure. A hose could potentially be something cats are attracted to or stimulated by, Johnson said.
Tuller told authorities that “this was not a normal day” and that Radziwon-Chapman was alone at the facility because he and his wife — the sanctuary’s executive director, Cheryl Tuller — were at another property in Scotts Mills, where they plan to eventually move the sanctuary, the sheriff’s report said.
Michael Tuller said he thought Radziwon-Chapman was cleaning the enclosure at the time of the attack. The sanctuary’s owners did not explain whether the keeper was required to do that task when she was alone.
The facility’s main enclosure is surrounded on all sides by a 14-foot wall of thick wire with secure ceilings. It includes the smaller cage where the animals can be locked up, along with a double-door entry.
The sanctuary says its safety handbook specifies that a staff member can enter the main enclosure to clean or make repairs only after the animals are locked out of it in the smaller cage. Caretakers may never be alone with animals in the same space.
The smaller cage is opened from outside the enclosure, food is placed inside it by two caretakers to attract the cats, and the gate is latched once all the cats are inside, Johnson said. Once the animals are locked in the smaller cage, a keeper can enter the enclosure through the separate double-door entry.
Authorities have directed no blame in the death. The Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office said it concluded no crime was committed.
Radziwon-Chapman’s mother, Carol Radziwon, said her daughter was very careful around the animals and had written some of WildCat Haven’s safety rules.
“There was no one there to help her. There was no one at that sanctuary. They left her completely alone,” her mother, Carol Radziwon, said Monday by phone from Pennsylvania.
The state Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are still investigating.
Agencies probe safety rules
The USDA will try to determine if any noncompliance with the Animal Welfare Act contributed to the attack, spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said. USDA investigators will look at whether proper enclosures were in place and whether they were in good working order.
Oregon OSHA also will review the sanctuary’s safety protocols and training, spokeswoman Melanie Mesaros said.
Sanctuary officials said Tuesday that they’re also launching an investigation into the death. They’ve retained wild animal expert Tim Harrison of Ohio-based Outreach for Animals to review safety protocols and audit the facility.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the cougar or cougars that attacked Radziwon-Chapman would be put down.
WildCat Haven, in a secluded, wooded area 17 miles south of Portland, is a nonprofit organization that rescues captive-born cougars, bobcats, tigers and other large wild cats. It houses about 60 cats and is closed to the public.
Radziwon-Chapman, originally from Philadelphia, leaves behind a husband and a 5-month-old daughter. She graduated from Portland State University with a biology degree and had more than 20 years’ experience with domestic animals and wild cats, family members said.