FRESNO — Dianna Hanson first developed a passion for wild animals at age 7 when her mother adopted a tiger in her name.
That passion led eventually to her dream job: an internship working with big cats at Project Survival's Cat Haven in the Sierra foothills east of Fresno.
On Wednesday, that dream job turned tragic when a 5-year-old African lion that Hanson loved apparently got past a gate separating animal enclosures and attacked, breaking her neck and killing her almost instantly.
A Fresno County sheriff's deputy shot and killed the lion, named Cous Cous, when it stood its ground in its enclosure, preventing rescuers from safely reaching the fallen Hanson.
She had worked at the Cat Haven since January as a volunteer. Her father, Paul Hanson, told CNN on Thursday that his daughter hoped the six-month internship would lead to a job at a California zoo.
"Her happiest time of her life, her mother and I agreed today, was these last two months," he said.
Hanson, 24, grew up in the northern Seattle suburb of Brier. Paul Hanson, who now lives in nearby Edmonds, Wash., posted on his Facebook page a letter that his daughter had written to family and friends as she prepared to graduate from college, describing her desire to work with wild cats such as cheetahs, lions and tigers.
"As my mother can tell you, I have had the goals of working with big cats since she adopted a tiger in my name when I was seven," she wrote.
Paul Hanson, who lists his hometown as Merced, wrote that his daughter was excited to be working at the Cat Haven.
"She and I drove down there from Seattle on Jan. 1 and 2," he said. "Once there, she gave me the tour and showed me all the big cats there with which she would be working."
He said that her favorites were a tiger and Cous Cous, the 450-pound male who had been raised by hand at the haven from the age of 8 weeks, and who attacked her Wednesday for reasons unknown.
In a telephone interview with ABC News, Hanson said that he was uneasy about her work.
"Anybody who works with cats knows that they are wild animals, and they can turn even on people who are closest to them," he told ABC. "So I always had this horrible nagging premonition that I would get a call like this."
The coroner's office reported Hanson suffered bites and scratches all over her body, including her neck, head and the abdominal area.
Honoring her memory
Despite her tragic death, Hanson on his Facebook page encouraged family and friends to "honor Dianna's memory by helping her favorite cause: preserving the remaining big cats in the world. She would ask us to do that for her."
Dianna Hanson's Facebook page is festooned with photos of her cuddling with cheetahs at the Cat Haven. There's also a photo of her warily approaching a tiger with a stick to rub its tummy in an enclosure at the Akre Tiger Sanctuary in Washington.
"I am not poking her. I was bending over to scratch her back with my hand," Hanson wrote. "You always have something in your hand when you go in with them, but you never use it on them. You only touch them with your hands. One doesn't poke a tiger with a stick."
During her years as a student and after earning her biology degree from Western Washington University, Hanson volunteered and served internships, including as a cat-room cleaner with the PAWS Animal Shelter in Lynnwood, Wash.; at the Akre Tiger Sanctuary in Bellingham, Wash.; at the Snow Leopard Trust near Seattle; and as a volunteer researcher at the Soysambu Conservancy in Kenya.
Mark Coleman, a spokesman for PAWS, said volunteers at the shelter recalled Hanson "just being a real sweetheart and having a passion for animals, and for cats in particular."
Sad and shocking
News of Hanson's death stunned people with whom she volunteered in recent years.
"It's sad, just shocking, when you have someone so young and passionate with their whole life ahead of them," said Jennifer Snell Rullman, assistant director of conservation with the Snow Leopard Trust. "Dianna was very enthusiastic and excited about big cats, and her dream was to work with them."
Hanson was an office volunteer with the Snow Leopard Trust in 2011 and 2012, Snell Rullman said. The organization works to promote conservation programs of snow leopards in the wild in Asia, and Hanson's job included packaging and shipping handicrafts made by Asian tribes and sold to raise money for the organization.
"She didn't have contact with the cats here, but she was excited and passionate about supporting preservation," Snell Rullman said.