Family of woman mauled by lion pushes for new regulations | TribLIVE.com
U.S./World

Family of woman mauled by lion pushes for new regulations

Associated Press
1209884_web1_1209884-5ff2310847b94f3b8bcaa2ae5f19c2ab
In this Sept. 30, 2017 photo made available by Erik Sommer, the lion Matthai relaxes inside his enclosure at the Conservators Center in Burlington, NC. Matthai escaped from his enclosure in December 2018, and fatally mauled a 22-year-old Conservators Center intern before he was shot eight times and died. Now the intern’s family is supporting legislation in North Carolina that would tighten restrictions on ownership of large carnivorous animals. (Erik Sommers via AP)
1209884_web1_1209884-9812e85865614edb8a24f7b8ef552b4c
In this May 4, 2019 photo, the entrance to The Conservators Center in Burlington, N.C., is open for visitors. The park re-opened in February 2019 after an intern was mauled to death by a lion that escaped its inclosure in December 2018. ( AP Photo/Amanda Morris)

BURLINGTON, N.C. — Alex Black came face to face with an escaped lion when she was just 10 days into her unpaid internship at a private animal sanctuary.

The 22-year-old had been preparing deer meat to feed the big cats, and suddenly found herself alone, staring down the lion in a place where it could have reached visitors, according to her aunt, Virginia Black.

“Rather than panic and run away, she tried to keep him calm, keeping his focus on her and trying to distract him with the deer,” Black wrote in a letter to North Carolina’s lawmakers.

“It is possible she saved other lives that day,” Black wrote, but she lost her own. The lion pounced, pulling her back through an open gate into its enclosure, where it dragged her around by the neck.

Months after the mauling last December at the Conservators Center in Burlington, North Carolina, the family still questions the sanctuary’s safety protocols.

“We still want more answers and certainly the public deserves to have more answers,” Black told The Associated Press in an interview. “I think what happened to Alex is a call to action.”

North Carolina is one of just four states with no laws controlling ownership of nonnative big cats. Its rules for owning other wild animals are generally lax.

Black urged lawmakers to strengthen a House bill that passed this month that would prohibit private ownership of big cats, great apes, hyenas and bears, but wouldn’t regulate facilities such as the Conservators Center, which are licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She wants the state to require routine safety drills and law enforcement-approved safety plans.

“Sanctuaries and zoos where a person has been killed or injured where investigation has revealed a lack of proper safety drills, equipment and protocols should no longer be able to keep dangerous wild animals,” she wrote.

It’s unclear how Matthai — a 14-year-old male with 2.5-inch (6-cm) long upper canine teeth — escaped. The medical examiner cited an animal trainer who said a ball kept a gate from closing. The center said it was “neither accurate nor plausible” that a 28-inch (71-cm) wide lions’ play ball blocked the gate, but offered no alternative explanation. Outside the steel enclosure, the only barrier is a roughly 4-foot (1.2-meter) high chain-link fence that visitors are instructed not to lean on, for fear it might break.

The attack happened around 11:15 a.m., the Caswell County sheriff’s report said. Alex’s body wasn’t examined until 2:15 p.m.

With no tranquilizer gun immediately on hand, arriving firefighters sprayed water from firehoses in a futile attempt to move the lion away. Once the center’s CEO, Douglas Evans, had the tranquilizer gun, he struggled to load it, and a dart seemed to break inside, the sheriff’s report said.

“When the gentleman tried to assemble the tranquilizer gun, he was reading the instructions,” Black wrote in her letter, citing a witness she wouldn’t identify.

Evans then drove to retrieve a blow gun, and hit the lion twice with tranquilizer darts, to no apparent affect. Law enforcement officers ultimately shot the lion eight times, the sheriff’s report said.

“It seems clear that if the center had a real plan for how it would react in such a situation, it had rarely or never been practiced,” Black concluded in her letter. “The center apparently made an early decision that she had died, and the priority became saving the lion.”

Alex’s body was motionless, her status “unclear,” when law enforcement arrived, the sheriff’s report said. When they finally reached her, she had bled out and died, the autopsy found.

“What if she could’ve been saved?” Black said.

The center responded to emailed questions about Black’s claims with a brief statement saying safety measures have been thoroughly reviewed and the staff retrained. “The Center is confident that if all of its policies and procedures are followed, its guests, staff, and animals are safe,” Executive Director Mindy Stinner wrote in an email.

The center’s USDA license does require it to pass inspections and abide by certain animal welfare and safety regulations, and violations can result in fines and ultimately loss of the license. But the USDA has allowed repeat violators to continue operating, and its standards aren’t as strict as those required for accreditation by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

An unannounced USDA inspection in January 2019, one month after Black’s death, found the center had “no non-compliant items,” and the department declined to say if it’s still investigating. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration declined to discuss its separate investigation, which it expects to finish in June.

The center reopened in February with a dozen employees caring for more than 80 animals, seen by 16,000-plus visitors annually, according to its website.

“I was surprised when it opened,” Black said. “I just don’t know why it’s enough for them to say, ‘look we changed some things … come on over!’”

Her letter has had some impact: Lawmakers amended their bill to include a study of safety requirements for exempted facilities, which the center supports.

“I would’ve loved to see a stronger bill. I did what I could,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat. She introduced the amendment, but said her efforts to add more regulations were spurned by some of her colleagues.

Republican Rep. Rena Turner, who introduced the bill, said she wants to see whether the USDA will change its rules before adding state regulations.

Dan Ashe, executive director of the AZA, said the center contacted a member of his association for unofficial safety advice following Black’s death. Facilities like these should get AZA accreditation, he said, calling USDA standards “minimal.”

“If a facility has dangerous animals, they should hold themselves to high standards and should be held by the government to high standards,” he said.

No states mandate AZA accreditation, but some cities require it as a condition of building or operating permits, and while meeting higher standards can be costly, reducing risk is worth it, Ashe said.

“How much is a life worth?” he asked.

Categories: News | World
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.