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OSHA cites two serious violations in Sherwood cat sanctuary

Agency says rescue didn't obey its own safety protocols in fatal cougar attack


Cheryl Tuller, co-founder of Wildcat Haven Sanctuary in Sherwood, gives a tour of one of the cougar enclosures in 2006. Oregon OSHA announced Monday that the sanctuary would faces $5,600 in fines for serious safety violations that lead to the death of its head keeper, Renee Radziwon-ChapmanAn Oregon workplace safety agency has fined a Sherwood big cat sanctuary thousands of dollars after one of its employees was killed in a cougar attack four months ago.

The Oregon Safety and Health Division of the state’s department of consumer and business services has fined Wildcat Haven Sanctuary $5,600 for what it called “serious” safety and health violations after one of its keepers was attacked and killed in November 2013.

Renee Radziwon-Chapman, 36, was the head keeper at the rural Sherwood facility, which takes in abused or neglected tigers, cougars and other wild cats.

She was found dead in a cougar enclosure after being attacked and mauled by at least one of the cats.

Wildcat Haven is home to about 65 cats, ranging from tigers and cougars to lynx and hybrid housecats that have been bred with wild cats.

Click here to read OSHA's 13-page report

According to Oregon OSHA, the sanctuary did not do “every other thing reasonably necessary to protect the life, safety and health of the employees.”

"Sadly, as is so often the case, this workplace tragedy may have been prevented if the employer had followed and enforced its own guidelines when employees entered the cougar enclosures," said Michael Wood, an Oregon OSHA administrator.

The investigation revealed that the sanctuary did not have enough staff to handle the large amount of work needed. Because of that, it allowed employees to enter the cougar enclosures unsupervised. It also did not have adequate latches on its enclosures' lockout facilities.

The violations come with two $2,800 fines.

Wildcat Haven released a statement on Monday saying that many of the issues OSHA saw have already been addressed.

“We continue to work closely with OR-OSHA to review the agency’s findings as part of our commitment to maintaining a safe, secure work environment,” Wildcat Haven officials stated. “As an employer, we are ultimately responsible to protect the life, safety and health of our staff and volunteers.

"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. We also intend to work toward developing national sanctuary safety standards for the continued well-being of those dedicated to helping captive wild cats that can never be released.”

Report’s findings

Radziwon-ChapmanKeepers often worked alone at the sanctuary, OSHA investigators wrote in the 13-page report.

That goes directly against the sanctuary’s own safety protocols.

The sanctuary has a policy that keepers work in pairs whenever they enter animal enclosures. The animals are placed in a temporary lockout area attached to the enclosure.

“Cougars require a minimum of two qualified staff members be present during any contact,” reads the sanctuary’s handbook on safe handling techniques and practices. “Two qualified staff members shall work together during the lockout of dangerous animals. Once the animals are locked out, one staff member can safely enter the enclosure to clean or make repairs.”

But that didn’t happen, OSHA investigators said.

Radziwon-Chapman worked alone on both Nov. 8 and 9, 2013. The other employees at the facilities were all out of town.

The sanctuary’s co-founder Michael Tuller was in Scotts Mills examining the new facility, while his wife, co-founder Cheryl Tuller, was in Minnesota.

The report claimed Radziwon-Chapman had sent Cheryl Tuller numerous text messages just prior to the attack about the need for more help at the sanctuary, an assessment OSHA agreed with.

“There are 28 enclosures, and they all need to be cleaned every other day,” the report read. “There was no way for Renee to complete the work on those two days without working alone.”

“It is in the inspector’s opinion that there was not enough manpower at the sanctuary for it to operate safely,” the report added.

OSHA also found the cougar enclosures used a light-duty gate latch on the lockout chamber door. The latch is designed for easy use in residential backyards, and are not appropriate for use with dangerous animals, the agency reported.

“These latches can fail to remain secured if they are not fully closed and can pop open inadvertently,” the report claimed.

In order to secure the enclosures, workers had to go inside the enclosure and attach a carabiner clip to the latch.

“In doing so, the keepers were exposed to cougars who were housed in a lockout that was not fully secured,” according to the report.

In addition, keepers had to go through one enclosure in order to reach the door for a second enclosure housing two additional cougars next door.

“This poor design exposed keepers to potential attacks by captive cougars while performing cleaning and sanitation of the enclosure,” the report stated.

Decades of experience

Exactly what happened on the day of Renee Radziwon-Chapman's death is still a mystery, but OSHA inspectors and other investigating agencies agreed on a few details:

Sometime in the mid-afternoon of Nov. 9, 2013, Radziwon-Chapman entered a cougar enclosure to do maintenance or cleaning.

The enclosure was home to three mountain lions: Cody, Leo and Caden.

Cody and Leo were raised at the sanctuary from cubs after coming from private collections in Ohio and Iowa. Caden came to the sanctuary as an adult after his owners decided they no longer wanted the animal.

Radziwon-Chapman entered the enclosure alone and apparently attempted to lockout the animals. Caden was found secured in the lockout area, but the other two cats were found inside the enclosure with Radziwon-Chapman’s body.

Wildcat Haven’s president Michael Tuller discovered her body that evening after returning to the sanctuary where he lives with his wife Cheryl.

Radziwon-Chapman was found lying on her back in one of the cougar enclosures about 10 feet from the exit.

There was a great deal of blood, and an autopsy would later reveal Radziwon-Chapman died from bite wounds to her head and neck.

After Radziwon-Chapman’s death, the sanctuary released a statement saying it appeared the lockout gate was operating properly, which would have prevented the cougars in the enclosure from escaping.

Radziwon-Chapman had more than two-decades of experience working with big cats and was head keeper at the facility for eight years.

The Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office said it found no evidence of illegal activity, but Oregon OSHA, the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and the U.S. Department of Agriculture said they would look into her death.

The sanctuary launched its own internal investigation, hiring Tim Harrison, director of the Ohio-based educational group Outreach for Animals, to look into the incident, review the sanctuary's safety protocols and audit the facility.