2013: Woman dies at big cat sanctuary
Editor's note: This story is part of the The Times' special series, "Decade in Review." This series features three stories that helped to define each year of the 2010s. These can retell single stories that captivated readers of the time, a saga that played out across many articles, and even stories that were crowded to the margins by other news at the time but have made a lasting impact on our region.
The keeper of a sanctuary for wildcats near Sherwood died in a horrific and bizarre accident on Nov. 9, 2013.
The death of Renee Radziwon-Chapman, who had worked at the WildCat Haven Sanctuary as its head keeper for eight years, touched off a state investigation and prompted questions from the community about the sanctuary's practices.
The Clackamas County Sheriff's Office responded to the Nov. 9 incident, as the sanctuary was located at the western edge of Clackamas County, south of Sherwood and west of Wilsonville.
Michael Tuller, co-founder and president of the sanctuary, told arriving deputies what he had discovered upon arriving at the facility that evening: Radziwon-Chapman had apparently gone into one of the cougar enclosures, alone, and had been mauled to death by the big cat inside. Radziwon-Chapman had been the only person working there at the time, since Michael and Cheryl Tuller were away.
Michael Tuller said staff members weren't supposed to go into an enclosure unaccompanied. Radziwon-Chapman had also brought in a water hose to clean out the enclosure, he said, although staff were warned not to do so; many cats instinctually react to hoses as though they were snakes.
An autopsy determined Radziwon-Chapman had died of multiple bite wounds to her head and neck.
The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division immediately announced an investigation. In March 2014, the state fined WildCat Haven Sanctuary for $5,600, saying the sanctuary didn't use appropriate safeguards to keep employees and big cats separate and finding that the Tullers had violated their own policy by leaving Radziwon-Chapman there alone.
Radziwon-Chapman's estate sued for more than $6 million, arguing the sanctuary, and specifically the Tullers, were liable for Radziwon-Chapman's death. A Multnomah County circuit judge dismissed the suit, but in April 2019, the Oregon Court of Appeals partially reversed the lower court's ruling, determining that the claim against WildCat Haven should be considered more closely.
The tragedy wasn't the first time WildCat Haven Sanctuary was in the news in 2013. In August, The Times reported on the sanctuary's plans to move to rural Scotts Mills, near Silverton. Ironically, the reason Radziwon-Chapman had been left alone at the Sherwood-area sanctuary on Nov. 9 was that Michael and Cheryl Tuller were visiting their new facility to plan the move.
The sanctuary completed its move the next year and has since rebranded itself as the WildCat Ridge Sanctuary. It continues to operate to this day, caring for wildcats that are unable to live independently.
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