Fatal zoo mauling shows need for crackdown: Animal advocates

RALEIGH, NC (AP) — 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 last Monday.

Alexandra Black, 22, was attacked last 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 Executive Director of the facility Mindy Stinner.

Before deputies fired on the lion, officials made several attempts to tranquilise it or hold it at bay with fire hoses, the Caswell County Sheriff’s Office said.

Visitors at the centre 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.

Black, who was from New Palestine, Indiana, graduated from Indiana University in May with a degree in animal behaviour. She had also recently worked at a research and education centre 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.

Director of IU’s Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behaviour Cara Wellman recalled that Black was an undergraduate teaching assistant for introductory biology.

In a statement last Monday, the centre said the lion named Matthai was a 14-year-old male born at the centre shortly after his mother was placed there following a 2004 confiscation assisted by the US Department of Agriculture.

No problems were found at the non-profit nature centre 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 centre earned about USD711,000 from gifts, grants and contributions while spending about USD600,000 operating the centre that year. An online public records search indicates the centre faced state tax liens totalling thousands of dollars in 2017.

While the centre is USDA-licensed, animal welfare advocates note that it’s not accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), 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.