State fines NC wildlife center where lion killed intern last year

This story was updated with new information on July 17, 2019.

The state has fined a North Carolina wildlife center after a lion escaped its enclosure and killed an intern late last year.

The N.C. Department of Labor has issued three citations to The Conservators Center after a lion fatally attacked Alex Black, a recent college graduate.

The fines for the center, which straddles the Alamance-Caswell County line, total $3,000.

However, the fines are not directly related to Black’s death but instead to the “hazards” that employees were exposed to, according to an email released June 28. .

The Conservators Center requested an “informal conference” where it could present questions, problems and concerns with the citations. The labor department had three options, including amending its citations, but made no changes after the conference.

“The department has not yet heard if the Conservators Center will contest or pay the fine,” according to an update from the labor department released July 17.

The state could not “establish an employer/employee relationship due to the work status of the victim who died from the attack; therefore, the (Occupational Safety and Health) Division could not directly issue a citation pertaining to the death,” according to an email from Mary Katherine Revels, public information officer for the Department of Labor.

The fines were issued under the state’s “general duty clause” which is used when there is a hazard but not a specific standard that is violated.

Here are the summaries of the citations and how the center can fix the violations, according to the state:

  • The lion’s enclosure was not “adequately closed and secured due to ineffective procedures.” The center should implement procedures from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.
  • An employee had to work in the lion’s enclosure when it was “potentially not fully secured and the employer did not have a preventive maintenance program.” The center should create a program that inspects the doors and pens for damage and wear.
  • Employees were exposed because of the center’s “inadequate emergency response plan.” The center should keep a lethal weapon on site, adopt a shoot-to-kill policy and hold regular drills.

A “report of investigation” was released by the N.C. Medical Examiner’s Office in February.

A “large play ball” prevented a gate from securely locking and the 14-year-old lion named Matthai was able to enter the cage where animal trainer Ashley Watts, Black and another intern were cleaning, according to that report’s narration based on interviews with witnesses and law enforcement officers.

The citations from the state department do not mention the ball.

Black had only worked at the center for 10 days and had just graduated from Indiana University.

“She was a beautiful young woman who had just started her career, there was a terrible accident and we are mourning,” according to a statement the center gave Indianapolis television station WTHR after the attack. “But she died following her passion.”

The lion was shot eight times before it was killed by Caswell County Sheriff’s Office employees.

The Conservators Center has more than 80 animals, including tigers and lions, and offers public tours.

Efforts to reach it Friday evening were unsuccessful.

In a statement right after the attack, the center said it was “heartbroken” by Black’s death.

“We are a close-knit family of paid staff and volunteers and are devastated by the loss of this vibrant, smart young woman,” it said.

Anna Johnson covers Raleigh and Wake County for the News & Observer. She has previously covered city government, crime and business for newspapers across North Carolina and received many North Carolina Press Association awards, including first place for investigative reporting. She is a 2012 alumna of Elon University.
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