The fatal mauling of a zoo intern by a lion that escaped from a locked pen illustrates the need for North Carolina regulators to crack down on unaccredited exhibitors of dangerous animals, animal welfare advocates said Monday.
Alexandra Black, 22, was attacked Sunday while cleaning an animal enclosure with other staff members. It was at least the 10th instance of an escape or attack by an animal at a privately run North Carolina wildlife facility since 1997, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
Officials said the lion somehow escaped from a nearby pen and killed the recent college graduate just two weeks after she started working at the Conservators Center near Burlington, about 60 miles northwest of Raleigh. Sheriff's deputies shot and killed the animal before retrieving Black's body.
Black's "passion was the zoological industry. ... This person wanted to spend a lifetime around these animals, and I believe that the family was very supportive of that," said Mindy Stinner, executive director of the facility.
Before deputies fired on the lion, officials made several attempts to tranquilize it or hold it at bay with fire hoses, the Caswell County Sheriff's Office said.
Visitors at the center were hustled out of the park, Stinner said.
It was not immediately clear how the lion escaped or whether it got out of the enclosure that was being cleaned. Staff said the lion never made it beyond the park's perimeter fence. The park was closed indefinitely as part of an investigation.
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Black, who was from New Palestine, Indiana, graduated from Indiana University in May with a degree in animal behavior. She had also recently worked at a research and education center in Battleground, Indiana, known as Wolf Park, which is home to wolves, bison and foxes.
As she tried to narrow down her interests to a specific field, she became intrigued with animal husbandry, said Wolf Park Managing Director Dana Drenzek.
"What made her a really good fit was her passion and intelligence," Drenzek said. Black would do research on her own and come back with questions, she said.
Cara Wellman, director of IU's Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior, recalled that Black was an undergraduate teaching assistant for introductory biology.
"She was very energetic and committed to animal behavior and pursuing a career in animal husbandry," Wellman said. "This is silly, but what comes to my mind is that she was quiet and sweet. That was my impression of her."
In a statement Monday, the center said the lion named Matthai was a 14-year-old male born at the center shortly after his mother was placed there following a 2004 confiscation assisted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
No problems were found at the nonprofit nature center during inspections by the USDA in January 2017 or April 2018, according to government reports. A government inspector counted 16 lions, three tigers and two leopards among 85 total animals during the 2018 site visit.
A 2016 federal tax filing shows the center earned about $711,000 from gifts, grants and contributions while spending about $600,000 operating the center that year. An online public records search indicates the center faced state tax liens totaling thousands of dollars in 2017.
While the center is USDA-licensed, animal welfare advocates note that it's not accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which requires facilities to meet strict animal safety and security standards.
The Humane Society has urged North Carolina to go beyond the USDA licensing standards, arguing that it's among four states with particularly lax laws on private ownership of dangerous wild animals.
The organization pushed for a 2015 bill to make it illegal to own lions, tigers and other wild carnivores unless a facility was accredited by AZA or met other strict standards. The bill passed the state House but not the Senate.
"The longer North Carolina does nothing as other states continue to pass stricter and stricter laws, North Carolina is going to see people coming into the state with their collections of dangerous wild animals, and the problem is simply going to grow," Lisa Wathne, the Humane Society's director of captive wildlife protection, said in an interview.
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 and gets more than 16,000 visitors annually after starting public tours in 2007.
A center spokeswoman, Taylor Sharp, said the facility's leadership was not available to discuss safety and security Monday. The center acknowledges its lack of AZA accreditation on the site, noting that "facilities with more limited income must carefully choose how to allocate their resources."
Associated Press Writer Sarah Brumfield contributed to this report.