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‘Alex loved animals’: Intern killed in lion attack at NC preserve

January 1, 2019
Alexandra Black. Photo from family.

A 22-year-old woman died after a lion attacked her Sunday in a nature conservatory near Burlington, Caswell County officials said.

Alexandra Black, an intern at Conservators Center and a recent graduate of Indiana University Bloomington, died.

The Caswell County Sheriff’s Office said while a husbandry team at the center was doing a routine cleaning, led by a professionally trained animal keeper, the lion escaped its enclosure and killed Black.

Workers were unable to tranquilize the lion. Deputies fatally shot the lion to allow emergency workers to retrieve Black.

Black had been working at the Conservators Center for two weeks as a college intern, the sheriff’s office said.

In a statement, Black’s family said she had done three previous internships because “she really wanted to make a career of working with animals.”

“She was a beautiful young woman who had just started her career, there was a terrible accident, and we are mourning,” the family said. “But she died following her passion.”

The family asks that people consider donating to Wolf Park in Battleground, Indiana, where Black had previously worked, to honor her.

The Conservators Center is closed until further notice.

“We need to assess our situation, and we need to make sure that everyone here is safe and feels safe because this is a very scary thing,” saidMindy Stinner, executive director of Conservators Center. “A loss of life is something — we can’t possibly take it anymore seriously, and so we really need time to evaluate our situation and make sure that we’re ready to invite guests back in the park. That may be a little time.”

The North Carolina chapter of the Humane Society said the lion’s name was Matthai.

Crews responded to the center, located at 676 E. Hughes Mill Road, around 11:30 a.m., according to dispatchers.

Stinner said the staff was still processing the attack.

“This is not a situation we’ve ever had before,” she said. “Working with wild animals like this is a highly skilled profession, and it’s something we take very seriously, so any sort of incident like this is devastating to everyone.”

Stinner said she had been in contact with Black’s family.

“I am so grateful to this person’s family for taking a deep breath and speaking with us,” Stinner said. “I can’t imagine the loss they’re enduring. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be them. We only knew this person a short time, and obviously it’s already devastating for us.”

Visitors were at the center during the attack, Stinner said, but personnel used established protocol to escort them to safety.

During cleanings, large cats are secured in enclosures away from humans, she said. She said the lion was never in an area that wasn’t enclosed by the center’s perimeter fence.

The Caswell County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the attack.

Sheriff Tony Durden said firefighters had the lion at bay with charged hoses after attempting to tranquilize him. Deputies then shot the lion.

“The stress level was high,” Durden said. “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.”

The Conservators Center was founded in 1999 in Mebane before relocating to its current 45-acre, wooded lot in Caswell County, near the Almance county line, its website says.

The center houses more than 90 animals about about 20 species, including lions and tigers, many of which were taken from “unacceptable living conditions.” The center has an estimated 16,000 visitors each year.

The Conservators Center has a mission to support wildlife facilities across the globe and to educate the public through guided walking tours.

“We like to think of ourselves a community zoo,” Stinner said. “We started our lives here doing some rescue work and some sanctuary work, but we have moved away from that in recent years toward working with more varieties of species and reaching out to a wider variety of the community wire to pull them in.”

It is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is closed because of the federal government shutdown. Center staff members said the department is aware of the incident.

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