Heilbron lion attacks: 'My heart is broken,' says farm owner


The owner of a lion farm where a 4-year-old girl's scalp was torn by a lioness last week has described the incident as "tragic". 

Nico Roets, owner of the Weltevrede Lion farm in Heilbron, Free State, where Dina-Marie de Beer was grabbed through a fence while in her father Pieter's arms, told News24 that he felt extremely sorry for the De Beer family. 

"We are praying for her recovery. As soon as visitors are allowed, we would like to visit her," Roets said. 

Dina-Marie was last reported to be in an induced coma at the Netcare Union Hospital in Alberton. A part of her skull was reportedly removed last week to relieve pressure on her brain. Her father told Die Burger that the road to recovery would be long.

She will be back in theatre on Tuesday to have a monitor removed from her skull and to assess what progress she has made. 

Roets has been in contact with the family. 

The Pretoria family reportedly visited the lion park on their way home from a holiday and went into one of the camps so that Dina-Marie could pet a cub.

Scalp torn, skull penetrated

The juvenile lioness reportedly got hold of Pieter, who sustained minor injuries, but Dina-Marie's scalp was torn and her skull was penetrated by the lion's claw. 

Another man, Lewyllen de Jager, sustained minor injuries when he was attacked through a fence at the same farm on election day the Wednesday before.

After announcing on Facebook that Weltevrede would not be making further comments in the media, Roets reluctantly agreed to speak to News24 on Monday. 

Roets did not want to create the impression that he or the farm's personnel blamed tourists for such incidents, an impression he says was constructed by the media. 

READ: Lion rips off toddler's scalp at Heilbron lion park

"These were terrible freak accidents. Those lions are wild animals and they act on instinct. If someone turns their back on them, they want to jump them."

Roets said guides repeatedly warned people of the dangers. 

Also, on Wednesday, Weltevrede posted more than 10 pictures of warning signs on its property on its Facebook page. "Please remember, these are wild animals," one reads. Another states, in Afrikaans: "STOP. Premises entered at own risk. Do you want to go ahead?"

Could have been prevented

However, De Jager's mother, Dina de Jager, believes more could have been done to prevent the attack on her son. 

A picture on Facebook shows De Jager holding his son with the lion behind them, a split-second before pouncing. This picture was taken by Dina, she told News24, and she objected to it being published. 

Dina told News24 that she and her family believed that God protected her son and grandson from harm. 

The De Jagers are regular visitors at Weltevrede. "We love nature. My granddaughter wanted to see a maned lion so this is what we decided to do." 

According to Dina, the lions were initially lying down and she took some pictures of them. The fence between them and the lions had a clear sign stating it was electrified. Her son then turned around, holding her grandson Joshua, when she asked them to pose for a picture. A split second later, the lion pounced, pulling Lewyllen towards her.

"That lion jumped 2 metres into the air. Inexplicably, she managed to get its paws through that 'electric' fence. It's a miracle that little Joshua doesn't have a scratch on him. The lion then pulled Lewyllen against the fence. Fortunately my son kept his wits about him and passed Joshua from his left to his right where I managed to pull him away.

"When I looked up, that lion pushed its entire head through that fence. My granddaughter was screaming, 'He's attacking Daddy!'."

Two staff members then rushed into the camp and one managed to get the lion to let go by kicking it. 

'We were all stunned'

"We were all stunned about what had happened." 

Dina said staff helped to disinfect and dress Lewyllen's wounds before it was decided that he see a doctor. 

"You know, they didn't even take our names or numbers. But what concerns me most is, how did that lion manage to get through a fence that is supposedly electric?"

Dina said Lewyllen could not feel an electric charge when he was pulled against the fence. 

She added that the attack took them by surprise. "We aren't stupid. We won't get too close to a fence on purpose or push our arms through a fence so that a lion can bite us. Maybe [Lewyllen] should not have turned his back on the fence, but how does one expect something like that to happen when you're standing a metre away from the fence?"

Dina said she spoke to Roets by telephone on Sunday, who told her he had been led to believe that the attack hadn't been that serious. Roets was away voting at the time of the first incident. 

"Roets told me he was disappointed that staff members had not taken down our details.

"When we were driving back [after the attack], my son told me: 'Mamma, they got as big a fright as we did...'"

'These were tragic accidents'

Roets told News24 that more electric fences had been added since the incidents, but explained that the fence is electrified only on the side where the lions are kept. 

"The fence on the side where tourists view the lions is not electrified. What must have happened here is that, when the lions jumped against the fence, the electric fence came in contact with the regular fence and short-circuited.

"These were tragic accidents. Nobody considers what happened to that poor child.

"The guides warned them not to get too close to the fence but people get excited when they see the cubs and don't take notice of what's happening behind them.

"Now the papers are writing that we are 'blaming' the visitors. We never said that. We said people don't always pay attention to the warning signs and their surroundings."

Roets said it was also reported that the lion farm had refused the NSPCA access to the property. "There is no truth to that." 

Late on Sunday, the lion farm posted the following message: "We would like to inform that we [are] no longer going to give any comments to the media, due to [the fact] that the truth gets turned into sensation to sell more newspapers."

Charlene van Wyk, the lion farm's manager, told Rapport that representatives of the Department of Environmental Affairs visited the farm on Tuesday and could find nothing wrong [with its security measures]. 

"None of our permits were withdrawn," Van Wyk reportedly said. 

'It breaks my heart'

On Monday, Roets confirmed this to News24. 

"This was nobody's fault. I wish there was something more we could have done. Our guides are constantly warning people of the dangers and to keep their distance.

"A wild animal will always be wild. We merely ask that people be careful and listen to the guides."

Roets said the De Jagers were upset because they did not seek publicity. "We also don't want this kind of publicity. We do what we do out of our love for animals. 

"We would like to wish those injured a speedy recovery. It breaks my heart," Roets said. 

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