Search for answers in fatal lion mauling puts focus on North Carolina’s exotic animal laws
(BURLINGTON, N.C.) -- The investigation into how a lion at a North Carolina wildlife center managed to get loose and kill a young intern is putting a new focus on how keeping exotic animals in private facilities is regulated in the state.
North Carolina is one of just four states in the nation with little or no laws for keeping wild animals like lions, bears and primates in captivity, according to The Humane Society of the United States.
"Sadly, this incident illustrates the need for strong legislation to better restrict the private possession of dangerous wild animals," said Kitty Block, acting president and chief executive officer of The Humane Society of the United States.
On Sunday, 22-year-old Alexandra Black was killed by a lion at the Conservators Center in Burlington. Caswell County Sheriff's Office investigators said Black was cleaning an animal enclosure with a professionally trained animal keeper when she was mauled to death.
The 14-year-old lion named Matthai had been locked in a separate enclosure but somehow got out and attacked Black, officials said.
"I think anytime you have an incident, you have to take time to really assess what happened and that means some investigation. And we need to understand it and make sure that it's something that never happens again," Mindy Stinner, executive director of the Conservators Center, told ABC's "Good Morning America."
Police have released few details about how the animal got out of its locked enclosure.
The Conservators Center is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspected the facility on April 2 and found no violations, according to records obtained by ABC News. The USDA's report showed that the facility housed 85 animals, including 16 lions, three tigers, two leopards and four bobcats.
The Conservators Center is not accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
"Most facilities licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture to hold dangerous animals are not accredited by AZA, as is the case with the Conservators Center," the association said in a statement to ABC News. "Despite this, staff at the Conservators Center acknowledge the value of AZA's practices. They have also reached out to AZA for assistance, and AZA-accredited facilities are responding with the help and support they need during this tragic time.
"We are empathetic to what the staff at the Conservators Center are going through and will assist with anything they need — from animal care to food and supplies."
Black, a graduate of Indiana University, started working as an intern at the facility just 10 days before she was killed, officials at the Conservators Center said in a statement.
Personnel at the facility, about 60 miles northwest of Raleigh, were unable to tranquilize the lion, officials said. Sheriff's deputies who responded to the incident shot and killed the animal in order to retrieve Black's body, the sheriff's office said.
"Although Alex was with us for a very short time, she made an impact on our community," the Conservators Center said in a statement to ABC News on Monday. "We are a close-knit family of paid staff and volunteers and are devastated by the loss of this vibrant, smart young woman."
The incident was the latest in a string of attacks on people in North Carolina by exotic animals dating back to 2003, according to The Humane Society of the United States.
In September, a Japanese macaque monkey escaped from a backyard cage in Shallotte, North Carolina, and attacked a woman who was outside her house talking to an air-conditioner repairman, who shot the monkey dead. In 2006, a leopard at the New River Zoo in Fleetwood, North Carolina, bit the arm and wrist of a woman who was attempting to pet it while it was in its cage.
In 2004, a 14-year-old girl was bitten and seriously injured by her family's pet tiger when she entered the animal's enclosure in Lowgap, North Carolina, to take a photo.
In 2003, a 10-year-old boy shoveling snow got too close to the fenced enclosure of a neighbor's 400-pound pet tiger in Millers Creek, North Carolina, and was dragged under a fence by the animal and killed. That same year, the owner of the Charlotte Metro Zoo, a private menagerie in Charlotte, was bitten on the neck by a leopard.
Nicole Paquette, vice president of wildlife protection for the Human Society of the United States, told ABC News that many states cracked down on private ownership of wild animals following an incident in 2011 in Zanesville, Ohio, when the owner of a private animal killed himself after releasing 49 exotic animals, including 18 tigers and 17 lions. Police in Zanesville ended up killing most of the animals.
"I think it's pretty important to note that North Carolina has been one of the last holdouts in the country, and there have been numerous attempts by the state legislature to pass one of these types of laws," Parquette said.
In 2015, a bill was proposed in North Carolina that would have regulated the possession and breeding of wild and non-native animals, including big cats and bears, and would have barred the public display of privately owned animals.
A watered-down version of the bill passed the state House of Representatives but died in the state Senate.
Other states that lack regulations on the ownership of exotic animals are Alabama, Wisconsin and Nevada. In 2012, two pet chimpanzees, one weighing 180 pounds, escaped from a residential backyard and went on a rampage in Las Vegas, pounding on cars and getting into at least one vehicle before police killed one of them and tranquilized the other.
"The sad reality is we see this time and time again," Parquette said. "There are incidences that have happened all across the country. We're hoping that North Carolina does the right thing this time and takes swift action to prohibit this type of activity in the future."
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