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Report: Caswell deputies needed eight shots to put down lion after fatal attack

January 3, 2019
Matthai (Photo from Conservators Center Facebook page)

Caswell County deputies had to fire eight shots to put down a lion that had attacked and killed an intern at an animal preserve over the weekend, according to a police report.

Alex Black, 22, was working with a Conservators Center staff member to clean an enclosure Sunday when a lion escaped its pen, killing her.

According to an incident report filed by the Caswell County Sheriff’s Office, three deputies went to the center on East Hughes Mill Road after the attack to help staffers get the lion away from Black so she could receive medical attention.

“Staff members stated the victim had not moved from the spot she was in since the lion left her there,” Sgt. Michael Griggs wrote in the report. “The victim did not appear to be moving, and it was unclear to her status.”

Conservators Center officials wanted to tranquilize the lion, known as Matthai, so that paramedics could get inside the enclosure to treat Black, and Griggs said he told officials that deputies would have to use lethal force if the lion started attacking Black again.

When a tranquilizer dart broke off inside a gun and jammed it, center co-founder Douglas Evans had to drive home to retrieve a blow gun, Griggs wrote in the report.

Evans put three darts in the lion, but they didn’t seem to slow the animal down, Griggs wrote. The lion jumped up and down from a structure in the enclosure and once lay down but never appeared sleepy, he wrote.

“He was amped up. He had been moving around the kennel, or the enclosure, several times.” Griggs said Monday in a television interview.

Firefighters sprayed the lion with a hose to move it into the open and away from Black, and after clearing the surrounding area, Griggs shot the animal near its right front shoulder with his shotgun, according to the report.

“The lion did not go down and then ran back into the wooden structure with the small door,” he wrote.

Griggs fired a second shot, and another deputy fired a third shot, both in the right front shoulder area, but the lion still didn’t go down. Griggs said he fired a fourth shot into the lion’s right side.

“At that time, the lion moved over to the far left side of the structure and did not go down to the ground,” he wrote. “The lion stayed on his feet, and there was not a clear shot to take at this point.”

When the lion began running toward a fence where deputies were stationed, Griggs said he put two more shots into the lion’s right side. The lion finally lay down under a platform, and a third deputy fired a seventh shot into the lion’s breast below its neck, according to the report.

“At this time, the lion’s head went down on the ground, and a few minutes later, the lion stopped breathing,” he wrote.

Griggs said Evans told him that the lion needed to be shot in the heart to guarantee it was dead, and Evans instructed him where to aim for the eighth and final shot.

Staffers then went into the enclosure and confirmed the lion was dead. Paramedics also went in and confirmed that Black was dead.

Black, an Indiana native and a graduate of Indiana University, had been working at the center for about two weeks when she died.

“Alex Black was a wonderful person. The Conservators Center continues to mourn Alex’s passing and sends its deepest condolences to family and friends,” the center said in a statement late Wednesday night.

A Conservators Center spokesperson said in the statement that they are cooperating with all ongoing agency reviews of the incident, but are not at liberty to provide specific details.

“We can confirm that the Center’s personnel took directions from the on-site first responders, complied with their directives and provided all requested assistance,” the statement said.

Kathryn Bertok, assistant director of the North Carolina Tiger Rescue in Pittsboro, looked at the incident report from the Conservators Center and, while she can’t comment on that facility’s policies and procedures, she said she is not surprised that the tranquilizer darts had little effect on the apparently agitated lion.

“Particularly if you’re dealing with an animal who is excited, an animal that may be nervous, not where they’re supposed to be, then you have to have more tranquilizers that you would normally have to have in order to get that animal under anesthesia,” she said.

Bertok said the inherent risks of dealing with large, wild animals require an unyielding level of caution on the part of humans.

“These things can happen and you need to be aware and you need to protect yourself as well,” she said.

Animal rescue operations like the Tiger Rescue go to great lengths to protect workers and visitors.

“It takes a small moment of human error to cause a problem,” Bertok said.

The Tiger Rescue has 45 animals on the property, including 21 tigers and four lions.

“With all the facilities, your policy and procedures must be in place in order to be able to work safely around them, and you have to be prepared for anything that might come your way,” Bertok said.

The Tiger Rescue offers four guided tours a day, five days a week. Bertok said that once investigators determine what happened at the Conservators Center, she and her staff will review their own policies and procedures.

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