BURLINGTON, N.C. — An intern was helping do some routine cleaning at a North Carolina wildlife center when a lion attacked and swiftly killed her, authorities said. Visitors were rushed out while the staff and authorities tried vainly to tranquilize the animal and reach the young woman’s body.
But in the end, deputies shot and killed the lion.
Alexandra Black of New Palestine, Indiana, had been at the Conservators Center for about two weeks. The 22-year-old recent college graduate is being remembered for her passionate pursuit of a career working with animals.
“This person’s passion was the zoological industry. This was not this person’s first internship. This person wanted to spend a lifetime around these animals, and I believe that the family was very supportive of that,” the privately run center’s executive director, Mindy Stinner, told reporters.
Stinner said Black was accompanying professional staff members at the facility near Burlington as they did a routine cleaning of an animal enclosure Sunday when the male lion got free from a separate locked space and attacked, according to a statement by the center. The Caswell County Sheriff’s Office said deputies arrived on the scene and shot and killed the lion after several attempts to tranquilize it or hold it at bay with fire hoses.
“The stress level was high,” Sheriff Tony Durden told WRAL-TV. “I know they’re not used to having a 600-pound animal. And then having a young lady laying on the ground, so, you know, stress.”
Stinner said visitors at the center about 60 miles northwest of Raleigh were hustled out of the park using its safety protocols. Staff said the lion never made it beyond the park’s perimeter fence.
It wasn’t immediately clear how the lion escaped the locked area during the cleaning, and the park was closed indefinitely as part of an investigation.
Black graduated from Indiana University in May with a degree in animal behavior. She had also recently worked at Wolf Park in Battleground, Indiana, her family said.
“She was a beautiful young woman who had just started her career, there was a terrible accident, and we are mourning,” the family said in a statement, adding that “she died following her passion.”
At Wolf Park, the staff is trying to cope with the sudden loss.
“She was strong, she was confident and she was good at what she did,” said Dana Drenzek, managing director at Wolf Park. “It’s very hard to know that we are not going to see her.”
Drenzek said Black spent three months interning at their facility. She wrapped up her time there in early December before heading to North Carolina.
“She was very grateful,” Drenzek said. “She was very excited about her next step in life. We were 110 percent supportive of her.”
In a statement Monday, the Conservators Center gave details about the lion involved in the incident.
“Our lion, Matthai, was euthanized by first responders by necessity,” the statement said. “Matthai was a 14-year-old male who was born at the Conservators Center shortly after his mother was placed with us following a USDA-assisted confiscation in 2004.”
No problems were found at the privately run, nonprofit nature center during inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in April 2018 or January 2017, according to government reports. The government inspector counted 16 lions, three tigers and two leopards among 85 total animals during the 2018 site visit.
The center was founded in 1999 as an “educational nonprofit dedicated to providing a specialized home for select carnivore species,” according to its website. The site says it houses 21 species. It says it began giving public tours in 2007 and gets more than 16,000 visitors annually.
Stinner said she currently thinks of the facility as a “community zoo.”
Conservators Center issued this statement:
We are heartbroken to announce the death yesterday morning of a remarkable young woman Alexandra Black, 22, who recently began a husbandry internship at the Conservators Center. Alex was working with one of our husbandry teams cleaning a lion enclosure, when a lion who had been locked into a separate holding enclosure somehow managed to enter the enclosure in which our team was working and killed Alex. No other humans were injured.
Although Alex was with us for a very short time, she made an impact on our community. We are a close-knit family of paid staff and volunteers and are devastated by the loss of this vibrant, smart young woman. Alex had undertaken multiple internships, the most recent of which was at Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana. Her family has asked for those who would like to honor her memory to consider donating to Wolf Park, and we echo that request here.
We ask that you respect her family’s privacy while they are grappling with the loss of Alex and grieving for her.
When our husbandry teams clean big cat enclosures they follow a safety protocol that involves moving the cats into a separate space and securing them before humans enter the adjacent space. The specifics of what happened are still under investigation.
Our lion, Matthai, was euthanized by first responders by necessity. Matthai was a 14-year-old male who was born at the Conservators Center shortly after his mother was placed with us following a USDA-assisted confiscation in 2004.
We cannot provide further information at this time. We appreciate the outpouring of support for Alex’s family and the Conservators Center family and will provide more information as it becomes available. In the meantime, please understand that we are all traumatized by this incident. Just as Alex’s family needs privacy in this time of mourning, our staff and volunteers also need time to grieve while we return to our work caring for the rest of our residents.