Authorities Determine Cause of Death for Intern Killed by Lion at Wildlife Center
USZachary Stieber

An autopsy found that Alex Black, a 22-year-old intern at a North Carolina wildlife center, was dragged by the neck by the lion that ultimately killed her.

The autopsy report said that Black died as a result of multiple traumatic deep lacerations to her neck that caused significant blood loss. One laceration was to her trachea and esophagus while another on her neck cut through her jugular vein and carotid artery.

Black’s spinal cord was also fractured at some point during the attack, according to the report, which was obtained by WRAL.

Ashley Watts, an animal trainer at The Conservators Center, told investigators that she was working with Black and another intern to clean an enclosure on Dec. 30, 2018, when the lion escaped its pen.

Watts said the lion was in a locked pen inside a larger enclosure but a large ball blocked the gate and prevented it from closing properly, enabling the lion to escape.

The lion then entered the enclosure that the trio was working in and began to attack.

Watts said she tried to separate the lion and the intern but just before Black was about to escape, the lion bit her ankle and pulled her back into the enclosure. Watts and the other intern were able to escape.

Firefighters arriving on the scene tried to use a powerful hose to force the lion, Matthai, off of Black but were unsuccessful.

Workers tried to tranquilize Matthai, firing three shots into him, but he stayed alert, prompting Caswell County Sheriff deputies to fire eight shots into the lion, killing him, so they could retrieve Black’s body.

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The Conservators Center sign at the property in Burlington, N.C., on Dec. 31, 2018. (Woody Marshall/The Times-News via AP)

Wildlife Center

The center was founded in 1999 by longtime wildlife organization volunteers and employees Douglas Evans and Mindy Stinner as an educational nonprofit dedicated to providing a home for select carnivore species.

In 2004, the center accepted 14 lions and tigers that were part of a larger confiscation of animals living in unacceptable conditions, according to the center’s “about” page. The lion that killed a person before being put down, Matthai, was a 14-year-old male born to one of those lions.

The center now houses over 80 animals across more than 21 species and welcomes over 16,000 visitors a year.

On its website and Facebook page, the center advertises “once-in-a-lifetime-experiences” with animals. One part states: “Roar with lions from 5 feet away!”

The center stayed closed for one month before reopening in early February. Prior to reopening, the center stated on its website: “The Conservators Center is looking forward to welcoming guests back for regular tours beginning this Saturday, February 2nd. We are excited to continue our mission of wildlife education and conservation.”

The statement did not mention the attack.

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In this photo taken sometime between September and November 2018 and provided by Wolf Park, intern Alexandra Black trains with Khewa the wolf at Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Ind. (Monty Sloan/Wolf Park via AP)


Black had only worked for the center for 10 days before being killed.

“Although Alex was with us for a very short time, she made an impact on our community. We are a close-knit family of paid staff and volunteers and are devastated by the loss of this vibrant, smart young woman,” the center stated.

“Alex had undertaken multiple internships, the most recent of which was at Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana. Her family has asked for those who would like to honor her memory to consider donating to Wolf Park, and we echo that request here,” it continued.

In a statement released after her death, Black’s family said, “She died following her passion.”

“She was a beautiful young woman who had just started her career, there was a terrible accident, and we are mourning,” the family said in the statement.