It happened at the Conservators Center in Burlington.
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The victim of the attack has been identified as Alexandra Black of New Palestine, Indiana.
Officials said she was a recent graduate of Indiana University, was a college intern and had been employed at the Conservator Center for about two weeks.
"This is the worst day of my life," said Executive Director of the Conservators Center Mindy Stinner. "We've lost a person. We've lost an animal. We have lost the faith in ourselves a little today."
The Caswell Sheriff’s Office just now leaving Conservators Center - where a worker was killed today by a lion. The nonprofit, according to its website, is home to more than 80 animals including lions & tigers. #ABC11 pic.twitter.com/OtrPW88c2j— Elaina Athans (@AthansABC11) December 30, 2018
Following the incident, officials with the center released a statement. It read in part:
"We are heartbroken to announce the death yesterday morning of a remarkable young woman Alexandra Black, 22, who recently began a husbandry internship at the Conservators Center. Alex was working with one of our husbandry teams cleaning a lion enclosure, when a lion who had been locked into a separate holding enclosure somehow managed to enter the enclosure in which our team was working and killed Alex. No other humans were injured.
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.
We ask that you respect her family's privacy while they are grappling with the loss Alex and grieving for her.
When our husbandry teams clean big cat enclosures they follow a safety protocol that involves moving the cats into separate space and securing them before humans enter the adjacent space. The specifics of what happened are still under investigation.
...please understand that we are all traumatized by this incident. Just as Alex's family needs privacy in this time of mourning, our staff and volunteers also need time to grieve while we return to our work caring for the rest of our residents."
As the center's statement details, the husbandry team led by an animal keeper was carrying out a routine cleaning when one of the lions left a locked space, officials said.
According to the Conservators Center, the lion entered the space the humans were in and quickly killed Black.
Just arriving in Burlington - where a lion at the Conservators’ Center mauled a worker to death today. We’re being told the animal somehow left a locked area. The nonprofit is closed until further notice. #ABC11 pic.twitter.com/BmcWEsCcvT— Elaina Athans (@AthansABC11) December 30, 2018
"It's very important what we do here," Stinner said. "This is the love of our lives. But we need to really look at everything and evaluate to make sure that we're okay moving forward, that everything here is going to be safe for our people and for the public and that everything here is how we need it to be."
The lion, named Matthni, was shot and killed to allow Caswell County personnel to retrieve Black, officials said.
Black's family released the following statement regarding the incident:
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.
She was looking forward to this first out-of-state internship at the Conservators Center in North Carolina that started 10 days ago.
She was a beautiful young woman who had just started her career, there was a terrible accident, and we are mourning. But she died following her passion.
We ask that you consider donating to Wolf Park in Battleground, Indiana, to honor Alex.
The Conservators Center is closed until further notice, as the investigation is ongoing.
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