© Photo: KFSN-TV/AP
Cous Cous in 2012 at Cat Haven, a 100-acre refuge in the Sierra Nevada foothills with about two dozen large cats from four continents.
Male lion attacked when volunteer entered cage. Deputy later shot 4-year-old big cat dead.

An African lion killed a 26-year-old female intern who entered his enclosure Wednesday at a California sanctuary for rare big cats, the Fresno County Sheriff's Office said.

A deputy shot and killed the 4-year-old male lion after he attacked the woman about 12:30 p.m. PT at Project Survival's Cat Haven in Dunlap, 45 miles east of Fresno.

The sanctuary's founder, Dale Anderson, described the victim as an intern-volunteer but did not identify her. An autopsy will be conducted Thursday.

The lion, named Cous Cous, had been at the preserve since he was 8 weeks old, said Project Survival spokeswoman Tanya Osegueda.

A sheriff's sergeant told the Associated Press that only one other worker was around at the time of the mauling. The non-profit preserve is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays between Oct. 1 and April 30.

Investigators are trying to determine why the woman entered the lion's space.

A Department of Fish and Wildlife officer told the Fresno Bee that such an attack was "very rare" because of regulations limiting contact between the animals and humans.

"This facility has a very good history," Lt. Tony Spada said. "In this case, someone just got too close."

The sanctuary, which is licensed by the Fish and Wildlife Department, features about two dozen animals on 100 acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills, near King's Canyon National Park.

Other big cats, which come from four continents, include tigers, jaguars, leopards and cheetahs.