BURLINGTON, N.C. — A lion killed a worker Sunday at a North Carolina zoological park after it escaped a locked enclosure during a routine cleaning, officials said.
As a team led by a trained animal keeper cleaned the enclosure, “One of the lions somehow left a locked space and entered the space the humans were in and quickly killed one person,” the Conservators Center in Burlington, west of Durham, said on its Facebook page.
“The Conservators Center is devastated by the loss of a human life today,” the center said.
The center did not name the worker but the Caswell County Sheriff’s Office identified her as Alexandra Black, a 22-year-old recent graduate of Indiana State University. Black, a native of New Palestine, Indiana, had been an intern at the Conservators Center for about two weeks, the sheriff’s office said.
Black’s “passion was the zoological industry — this was not this person’s first internship,” the center’s executive director, Mindy Stinner, said, according to CNN affiliate WNCN.
“And this person wanted to spend a lifetime around these animals,” Stinner said in an emotional press conference.
Black was not a staff member but was working under the supervision of a staff member, according to Stinner.
Male lion was shot and killed
The male lion was euthanized, Stinner said. It was unclear how the lion escaped, the center said.
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.
Stinner said visitors were at the park but officials safely and quickly got them out of the park.
“This is not a situation we’ve ever had before. Safety is a very, very important feature of running any zoological park,” she said.
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 the US Department of Agriculture, according to Stinner.
Stinner, an educator, co-founded the center in 1999 in Mebane, North Carolina, 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 2004, the website said.
Stinner said they 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.”