Correction: This story has been updated to correct the name of the university Black attended and with the correct year the center relocated.
The zoological park intern killed by an escaped lion in North Carolina “loved animals” and wanted to make a career of working with them, her family says.
Alexandra Black, a 22-year-old recent graduate of Indiana University, had been an intern at the Conservators Center in Burlington for about two weeks when she was killed Sunday, the Caswell County Sheriff’s Office said.
The center said the male lion, identified as Matthai, escaped a locked holding enclosure and attacked Black while she and others were cleaning another area.
In a statement obtained by CNN affiliate WXIN in Indianapolis, Black’s family said she died “following her passion.”
“Alex loved animals. Our beautiful, intelligent, passionate Alex had worked, unpaid, at several animal-related ventures, most recently at Wolf Park in Battleground, Indiana. This was her fourth internship, because she really wanted to make a career of working with animals,” they said.
Black was a native of New Palestine, Indiana, according to the sheriff’s office.
She had started working at the Conservators Center – her first out-of-state internship – 10 days ago, her family said. The young woman was working in husbandry, or the care of animals.
“She was a beautiful young woman who had just started her career, there was a terrible accident, and we are mourning,” the family said.
They asked that people consider donating to Wolf Park to honor Black.
Conservators Center ‘devastated’
The Conservators Center said that a husbandry team was cleaning the enclosure when the attack took place.
“One of the lions somehow left a locked space and entered the space the humans were in and quickly killed one person,” the center said on its Facebook page.
“When our husbandry teams clean big cat enclosures they follow a safety protocol that involves moving the cats into a separate space and securing them before humans enter the adjacent space,” the center said in a statement. “The specifics of what happened are still under investigation.”
Black was working under the supervision of a staff member, the center’s executive director, Mindy Stinner, said, according to CNN affiliate WNCN.
Male lion was shot and killed
Stinner said all large cats are locked in a separate area from humans during the routine cleanings.
“At no time did the lion ever enter a space that was not enclosed by the park’s perimeter fence,” she said.
Center officials said Matthai, 14, was born at the facility shortly after his mother was placed there as the result of a government-assisted confiscation in 2007. He was euthanized by first responders “by necessity,” officials said.
Stinner said visitors were at the park but officials safely and quickly got them out.
“This is not a situation we’ve ever had before. Safety is a very, very important feature of running any zoological park,” she said.
No one else was injured in the attack.
The North Carolina Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Division is investigating the incident, said department spokeswoman Dolores Quesenberry.
Center is closed until further notice
The zoological park houses more than 80 animals, including tigers, small wild cats and other small carnivores, according to its website. It offers guided walking tours near the animal enclosures. The park is regulated by the US Department of Agriculture, according to Stinner.
No problems were identified during routine inspections in January 2017 and April 2018, according to Agriculture Department records. The 2018 inspector counted 16 lions out of 85 animals.
Stinner, an educator, co-founded the center in 1999 in Mebane as an educational nonprofit to provide a home for select carnivore species, according to the center’s website. It relocated to a 45-acre swath in 2001, the website said.
Stinner said it first started doing rescue and sanctuary work, but moved away from that emphasis and worked with more species, trying to involve the community more. “We like to think of ourselves as kind of a community zoo,” she said.
The center is closed until further notice, officials said.
“We need to assess our situation, and we need to make sure that everyone here is safe and feels safe,” Stinner said, “because this is a very scary thing.”
The center said it appreciated the outpouring of concern for the Black family and traumatized staff members.
“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.”
CNN’s Kaylee Hartung reported from Burlington. CNN’s Phil Gast, Janet DiGiacomo and Lechelle Benken contributed to this report.