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Questions linger after death of keeper at wildcat sanctuary

State and federal agencies launch investigations into cougar attack at Wildcat Haven in Sherwood


The Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office will not investigate the death of a Portland woman who was killed at a Sherwood animal sanctuary earlier this month. But two other federal agencies have stepped up to look into the death, as has a nonprofit group in Ohio.

Renee Radziwon-Chapman, 36, was found dead at the WildCat Haven Sanctuary in rural Sherwood Nov. 9 after she had apparently been attacked by a cougar living at the facility.

The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the death, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates the facility, has said it will look into the incident to see if a full investigation is necessary. Radziwon-Chapman

For more than a decade, the sanctuary has provided a home to tigers, cougars, bobcats and other wild cats that have been abused and neglected in captivity.

Radziwon-Chapman served as the head keeper at the facility for the past eight years. An experienced veterinary technician with more than 20 years of experience, she was reportedly working alone at the sanctuary when she entered an animal enclosure housing three cougars.

According to a report by the sheriff’s office, deputies arrived at the big cat animal sanctuary, located at 31369 S.W. Heater Road, at about 7:19 p.m. when they met with the organization’s co-founder and president, Michael Tuller, who discovered Radziwon-Chapman’s body at about 6:54 p.m.

Tuller, who deputies described as “extremely upset and distraught,” told deputies this should not have happened because employees regularly work in pairs when they go into cages, and the animals are locked away.

But Nov. 9 was not a normal day at the sanctuary, Tuller said. He and his wife were in Scotts Mills examining a new 82-acre parcel they plan to move the facility to.

Tuller arrived at the facility, where he and his wife live, before 7 p.m. and noticed that Radziwon-Chapman was still there more than an hour after her shift ended, he said.

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

Tuller pulled her body into another enclosure, out of harm’s way, and called 9-1-1.

When deputies arrived, Radziwon-Chapman’s body was lying behind a fence in an adjoining enclosure. Deputies reported that part of her scalp had been torn off, and a tooth was found on the ground. A work glove was lying in the enclosure, and there was a great deal of blood.

Two cougars were inside the enclosure where Radziwon-Chapman was attacked; a third was locked in a holding area used when keepers clean the cages and perform maintenance.

One of the cougars had blood on its nose, deputies wrote.

An autopsy later reveal Radziwon-Chapman died of multiple bite wounds to her head and neck.

It appeared she had been cleaning the enclosure, but sanctuary safety protocols call for two people to be on hand and to move the animals into the holding area, known as a “lock in.”

Deputies found a water hose inside the enclosure, which Tuller said was unusual.

“She should have never brought the hose inside the cage,” the report quotes Tuller as saying. “Mr. Tuller said the people who work here know not to bring hoses inside the cages.”

Searching for answers

OSHA has launched an investigation into Radziwon-Chapman’s death. Melanie Mesaros, a spokesman for the workplace safety agency, said investigators would be focused on the sanctuary’s safety protocols, and if they were sufficient to keep employees from being hurt.

“No matter where you work, employers have a responsibility to provide a safe and healthy environment to their workers,” Mesaros said. “Whatever type of business you are, an employer needs to look at what the hazards are and how to best protect their employees.”

That investigation could take up to six months, Mesaros said, and will examine employee supervision, training, interviews with employees and safety protocols.

On Nov. 12, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which inspects zoos and sanctuaries across the country, said that while it had not yet opened an investigation into Radziwon-Chapman’s death, the agency would also look into the case.

The Animal Welfare Act gives the USDA regulatory power over the sanctuary, and according to Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman for APHIS, the agency will look into other mitigating factors that could have led to the incident.

“We look to see whether or not the enclosures are working properly, whether employee training is done correctly,” Espinosa said. “Primarily, what we are looking for are any noncompliances that may have contributed to the situation.”

That includes checking the animals to ensure they were being treated well.

“Did that animal act in an unusual manner? Should it have gone to a vet, and no one knew about its condition?” Espinosa said.

The USDA inspects the facility at least once a year. No incidents or negative reports had been filed about WildCat Haven, Espinosa said.

The sanctuary’s 2013 inspection was scheduled for later this month.

WildCat Haven leaders said they welcome the investigations, and on Nov. 11 issued a statement saying the sanctuary had hired an outside organization to look into the matter.

“It is our deepest wish to honor Renee’s memory and respect her family,” Tuller said. “That is why formal investigations, by our organization and others, are essential.”

Tuller said the facility hired Tim Harrison, director of the Ohio-based educational group Outreach for Animals, to investigate the incident, review the sanctuary’s safety protocols and audit the facility.

Concerns about safety

In a statement posted on the group’s website recently, WildCat Haven Executive Director Cheryl Tuller said the organization has strict rules in place to keep staff members safe.

When staff members clean the animals’ enclosures or make repairs, the animals are moved to a smaller holding area to ensure staff members can move safely around the enclosure.

Two people are required to work together during lock outs of dangerous animals, she said. Once the animals are removed from the enclosure, one staff member can enter to clean or make repairs.

“At this time, it is believed that Radziwon-Chapman was alone at the sanctuary and alone in the enclosure with cats, which had not been shifted into the lockout area,” Cheryl Tuller said in a statement.

In a separate statement, the sanctuary said it had inspected the enclosure where Radziwon-Chapman was attacked, and the lockout gate appeared to have been operating properly, which would have prevented the three cats in the enclosure from escaping while she was inside cleaning.

Only one of the three cats was secured inside the lockout when the attack occurred, according to the statement. Two others were found inside the main enclosure when the body was discovered.

But that account conflicts with reports by Radziwon-Chapman’s mother, Carol Radziwon, who claimed her daughter’s experience working with dangerous animals would have prevented her from going against safety protocols at the facility.

“She was extremely careful. She had a baby at home. She would never jeopardize her life like that. She was careful all the time,” Radziwon told The Tigard Times from her home in Fairless Hills, Pa., where Radziwon-Chapman grew up. “They are making it sound like she did something wrong, but there was nobody to call for help.”

Radziwon said her daughter had voiced concerns about safety at the facility to Cheryl Tuller in the days before her death.

“She said that she needed someone there,” Radziwon said. “They left here there. She had no one to call.”



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