“They should not have put me in a feeding cage where a lion can stick out his arm completely and grab you,” Lauren Fagen, 18, told CBC’s Daybreak from a hospital bed in South Africa, where she is recovering from Monday's attack.
“It’s irrelevant what I was doing — he just shouldn’t be able to grab me like that.”
Fagen had been at the refuge for two weeks volunteering as part of a program for students.
Students pay around $69 a day to take part in the program, money which Fagen said goes toward their room and board. They’re trained on safety measures when they arrive and are supervised by staff members, according to the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre.
On Monday, Fagen said she was asked to clean the feeding pen attached to the enclosure housing a five-year-old male lion named Duma.
Typically, the volunteers work in pairs, but Fagen said she was told to perform the task alone. In other enclosures, a steel door separates the feeding area from the area where the lions are held.
This one was different, Fagen said, and had bars like a jail cell, not a solid door.
“I found that kind of alarming, but kind of ignored it and I proceeded to clean his feeding cage by myself and Duma proceeded to rub himself against the gate facing the feeding cage as I cleaned,” she said.
Noting the animal's sharp claws, she said she moved further away from the lion even though she believed he was acting affectionately.
Fagen said the lion suddenly stuck its paw through the gate and caught one of her legs. It pulled her through the bars, trapping her knee, as it bit and scratched her.
“I screamed and it felt like it was a very long time, however I don’t know how long I was in the gate,” she said. “It felt like a minute to two minutes, but it was definitely shorter than that because for me it was in slow motion.”
Fagen was rushed to hospital where she is being treated for an injury to her knee as well as cuts and bites.
She doesn't believe the lion was trying to kill her, but doesn't know what triggered the attack.
"If he wanted to kill me, I would for sure be dead. Or at least have lost both of my legs. I find it incredible that he didn’t kill me and I love Duma to death for not killing me. He was so gentle for a while."
She insists that she was following staff instructions at the time of the attack, but Brian Jones, the founder of the centre, said it was Fagen who was being negligent.
Rules not followed
He said she did not listen to repeated warnings not to touch the animals and ignored signs posted around the reserve.
“This little girl, she confessed the first day, ‘I’ve come to hug a lion or a cheetah or a leopard. I want to hug them,’” Jones told CBC News.
“I said, ‘You cannot hug no animal. A week later, she’s trying to hug the leopards. She’s chasing the antelope around the yard. She’s trying to hug them. I thought, ‘Goodness me. She’s cuckoo.’”
Jones said other witnesses at the park reported that Fagen was too close to the enclosure and was warned by other students to move back when the lion grabbed her.
“It’s almost impossible for anything to happen unless you break the rules,” he said.
“She’s probably been watching too many TV programs where you see tame lions and people are hugging them. That is imprinted in their minds. She’s come from Canada not realizing she’s in wild Africa and trying to hug these animals.”
Animal interaction encouraged
Fagen admits being close to animals had been a dream of hers, but not one she would have compromised her own safety for. She says she was alone at the time of the attack and no one else saw what happened.
“As for hugging animals, I definitely wanted to, but I always respected the rules,” she said.
“I wasn’t going to throw myself in the cheetah cage. However, there were some animals there that, when a staff member was present, you could pet them and be affectionate with them within reason. You couldn’t go near their faces or anything like that, but I respected the rules.”
The website of the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre says the responsibility of student volunteers is caring for animals, including feeding, cleaning and "providing stimulation for our more intelligent residents."
Jones said in 23 years there has never been an incident like this involving volunteers.
Fagen hasn’t decided if she’ll pursue further action against the refuge, but said she wanted to tell her side of the story before she considered her next step.