SHERWOOD, Ore. -- A former worker at the wild cat sanctuary where a keeper was killed in a cougar attack last weekend said he's outraged that the directors have accused her of breaking the rules and he wanted to speak out to help clear her name.
Derek Vail spent five years as a volunteer at WildCat Haven where Renee Radziwon-Chapman, 36, died Saturday after being attacked by a cougar inside an enclosure at the sanctuary. She was the head keeper.
The sanctuary released a statement after the deadly attack that said Radziwon-Chapman had violated strict protocol by going into the enclosure alone. It quoted a section of the facility's handbook, which states: "Two qualified staff members shall work together during the lock out of dangerous animals."
However, Vail said that during his five years as a volunteer at the sanctuary, the owners never enforced that policy and often gave approval for workers to go inside alone, including he and Radziwon-Chapman. He showed KGW photos taken of him with the cougars and said he felt safe when he was inside the enclosures.
"It's morally reprehensible they are blaming her," Vail said. "Renee cleaned the cages alone for years and so did other volunteers."
When asked what he thought may have triggered the deadly attack on his former co-worker, Vail said, "I don't know what happened, but I know what didn't happen: I know Renee did not go in there and violate a bunch of safety protocols."
Vail added that he’s very familiar with the whole operation at WildCat Haven. He even helped build some of the cages and enjoyed getting close to the cats.
“I felt honored to be that close to God's creatures,” he said. A large tattoo on his right arm of one of the cats serves as a constant reminder of his days at the sanctuary.
The facility in Sherwood, run by Michael and Cheryl Tuller, is a "no-kill, last hope" sanctuary for captive-born wild cats, including tigers, bobcats, lynx and cougars.
Vail said he understands that WildCat Haven may face legal problems if they admit protocols were lax, and he would hate to see their work with animals impacted.
But he wants to protect the memory of Renee for her 6-month-old daughter, who will only know her through pictures and stories.
"She was one of the finest human beings I have ever met in my entire life. She loved animals. She was always working hard and never would have violated any safety protocols," Vail said. "When I think of her, I still can't believe she's gone."
The Tullers have not spoken publicly since the deadly attack. But they described Renee as a dear friend in a written statement that included this quote from Cheryl Tuller:
“We are devastated by this loss. Not only was she one of our most dedicated staff members, we thought of her as family. We send our most heartfelt prayers to those she has left behind.”
A 911 call obtained by KGW Wednesday shows the measures that Michael Tuller took to try and save Radziwon-Chapman after he spotted her body in the enclosure.
911 call: Desperate panic followed cougar attack
When Vail started volunteering at the WildCat Haven animal sanctuary in Sherwood, he did so as therapy to try and heal from the death of his young son. Little Nicholas developed a brain ailment and died at just 6 years old.
Now, talking about Renee helps him come to terms with the loss of a former co-worker who grew to become his good friend.
“I’m so upset that my friend was killed. I loved my time at the WildCat Haven, but I think speaking the truth is the most important,” he said.
Vail said he volunteered at WildCat Haven for 5 years, which is where he met Renee. She taught him how to work with cats and her husband was even the pastor at his wedding.
"I am praying for her husband and her mom and her family," he said. "She was a wonderful person."
KGW reached out to the owners of the sanctuary for a comment on these new claims. They have not returned the calls.
The Clackamas County Sheriff's Office and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are both currently conducting formal investigations into Radziwon-Chapman's death.
WildCat Haven also hired a specialist in exotic captive animal programs to study safety procedures and audit the facility.
Background: Head keeper killed in Ore. cougar attack
KGW reporter Mike Benner contributed to this report.