Burlington, N.C. – An intern was helping do some routine cleaning at a North Carolina wildlife center when a, authorities said. Visitors were rushed out while the staff and authorities tried vainly to tranquilize the animal and reach the young woman's body. But in the end, deputies shot and killed the lion.
Alexandra Black of New Palestine, Indiana, had been at the Conservators Center for about two weeks. The 22-year-old recent college graduate is being remembered for her passionate pursuit of a career working with animals.
"This person's passion was the zoological industry. This was not this person's first internship. This person wanted to spend a lifetime around these animals, and I believe that the family was very supportive of that," the privately run center's executive director, Mindy Stinner, told reporters Sunday.
Stinner said Black was accompanying professional staff members at the facility near Burlington as they did a routine cleaning of an animal enclosure Sunday when the male lion got free from a separate locked space and attacked, according to a statement by the center. The Caswell County Sheriff's Office said deputies arrived on the scene and shot and killed the lion after several attempts to tranquilize it or hold it at bay with fire hoses.
"The stress level was high," Sheriff Tony Durden told WRAL-TV. "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."
Stinner said visitors at the center about 60 miles northwest of Raleigh were hustled out of the park using its safety protocols. Staff said the lion never made it beyond the park's perimeter fence. It wasn't immediately clear how the lion escaped the locked area during the cleaning, and the park was closed indefinitely as part of an investigation.
Black graduated from Indiana University in May with a degree in animal behavior, according to her LinkedIn page. She had also recently worked at Wolf Park in Battleground, Indiana, her family said.
Black's family said she had been working at the conservatory for 10 days and it was the fourth internship in her young career.
"She was a beautiful young woman who had just started her career, there was a terrible accident, and we are mourning. But she died following her passion," her family said in a statement to CBS News.
In a statement Monday, the center gave details about the lion.
"Our lion, Matthai, was euthanized by first responders by necessity," the statement said. "Matthai was a 14-year-old male who was born at the Conservators Center shortly after his mother was placed with us following a USDA-assisted confiscation in 2004."
The site described Matthai as "a little nervous by nature" but "an enthusiastic recipient of attention from the people he knows best." A video on the center's YouTube page shows Matthai roaring.
No problems were found at the privately run, nonprofit nature center during inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in April 2018 or January 2017, according to government reports. The government inspector counted 16 lions, three tigers and two leopards among 85 total animals during the 2018 site visit.
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. It says it began giving public tours in 2007 and gets more than 16,000 visitors annually.
Stinner said she currently thinks of the facility as a "community zoo."