BURLINGTON, N.C.—A witness told authorities a gate blocked by a ball at a North Carolina animal preserve allowed a lion to reach three people at the start of a fatal attack, biting one intern’s ankle and pulling her into the enclosure, according to a medical examiner’s report.
A Caswell County sheriff’s lieutenant advised that animal trainer Ashley Watts reported separating the 14-year-old lion named Matthai into a section of an enclosure at the Conservators Center in Burlington on Dec. 30, according to the report first published by WRAL-TV.
Watts said the gate securing that section was blocked by a large ball and the lion entered the area that Watts, 22-year-old intern Alex Black and a second intern were cleaning, the report stated. Before she could close the gate, the lion bit Black’s ankle, pulling her into the enclosure, the report said.
The sheriff’s official, Lt. Eugene Riddick, said fire department personnel used a firehose to separate the lion and Black without success, the report noted.
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The lion dragged Black around the enclosure by her neck “for an extended amount of time.” After attempts to sedate the lion with darts failed, deputies shot the lion eight times, killing the animal, the report said.
The initial assessment showed Black died from multiple deep lacerations to the neck with significant blood loss, according to the report. It lists the probable cause of death as “Mauling by Animal.”
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In a statement provided to WFMY-TV, the center disputes reports that the gate was obstructed by a ball, saying that is “neither accurate nor plausible.” However, the center does not explain how the lion was able to reach the three.
The attack occurred less than two weeks after Black, a recent college graduate from New Palestine, Indiana, had begun working at the nonprofit wildlife facility.
USDA inspections in 2017 and 2018 found no problems at the center, according to government reports. A government inspector counted 16 lions among 85 total animals in 2018.
The center stresses in its statement that as an intern, Black wasn’t responsible for the accident and that “all credible evidence” indicates that she was “killed almost instantly” and first responders were “conducting a recovery, not a rescue.”
The center reviewed safety policies and procedures and re-trained staff, and said it’s confident that, when followed, those existing policies and procedures are sufficient.
Lt. Darrell McLean, a spokesman for the Caswell County Sheriff’s Office, declined comment Wednesday.
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.
NTD reporter Zachary Stieber contributed to this report.