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Fatal lion attack has NC Zoo, other preserves checking safety measures

January 1, 2019
Conservators Center

New Year’s Day would normally be a busy day for tours at the Conservators Center animal preserve in Caswell County. But the center remains closed after the death of 22-year-old intern Alex Black in a lion attack Sunday.

Despite the incident, people who live near the preserve said Tuesday that they have always felt safe with it nearby – and they still do.

Deanna and Kevin Ouzts said they have known the owners of the center for some time. and have visited with their family.

“They are very safety-conscious and minded about what they do,” Deanna Ouzts said. “I really think they have a good heart, everyone who works down there. They’re compassionate people.”

“You can’t ask for better neighbors than they are,” Kevin Ouzts said.

Conservators Center officials say Black was working with a staff member to clean an enclosure Sunday when a lion escaped its pen, killing her. The lion was later killed by Caswell County deputies.

The attack has prompted other places that care for wild animals, such as the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, to take a closer look at their own safety measures.

“We’re a very safe zoo, but when things like this happen, it just reminds us that we’re going to look again,” said Jennifer Ireland, the zoo’s mammal curator.

Zoo staffers always try to put two doors between themselves and any animals, Ireland said.

“If one door were to fail, there would still be another door that the animal would have to get to before they would get to the person,” she said.

The state Division of Occupational Safety and Health is investigating the attack to determine if any workplace safety standards were violated.

An attorney representing the Conservators Center said the center is cooperating with all government investigations of Black’s death, but he declined to elaborate.

A federal inspection of the Conservators Center in April found no violations at the facility.

Black’s family said she died doing what she loved. The Indiana University graduate had been at the Conservators Center only two weeks but had held previous internships in animal care.

Before moving to North Carolina, the Indiana native had wrapped up an internship at Wolf Park Battleground in her home state.

″[She] just was a very amazing, beautiful person. We feel like we lost a very special person, and it’s tragic,” park director Dana Dreznek said.

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

The center houses more than 90 animals from 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.

Animal welfare say the incident shows the need for North Carolina regulators to crack down on unaccredited businesses that have dangerous animals.

According to the Humane Society, the attack was the 10th instance in North Carolina of an animal escape or attack at a privately run facility since 1997.

“Humans and captive animals will keep losing their lives as long as unaccredited roadside zoos like the so-called ‘Conservators Center’ keep imprisoning dangerous animals for entertainment,” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said in a statement. “PETA is urging the public to stay away from such facilities and calling on North Carolina lawmakers to safeguard human lives by making it illegal for any non-accredited facility to possess wild and exotic animals.”

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