'It's happened before:' Neighbor recalls lion escaping from Conservators Center years ago

BURLINGTON, N.C. (WTVD) -- Caroline Laur's Burlington home sits right next to the Conservators Center. She says while it broke her heart to hear about the deadly lion attack but the idea that a lion got loose at the center did not come as a complete surprise.

She says it has happened before.

"It just reminds us once again how vulnerable we are"

A plot of woods is all that separates Laur's house from the private wildlife park next door. She says 8 years ago one of the lions at the Conservators Center came way too close for comfort.

A lion got loose and she said it was in her yard.

Although, the Conservators Center said they never had a lion escape.

"At the time I had two foster children, two kids staying with us," she said. "And we were scared to death because the footprints were in our yard. We ran the community watch and we asked and found out that two people said they had seen a lion get out."

While Laur says no one was hurt, what happened then seemed frighteningly similar to the attack that killed 22-year old wildlife intern Alexandra Black on Sunday.

Matthai the lion somehow escaped his locked enclosure, wandering into a staff area at the Conservators Center and mauled Black to death.

Caswell County sheriff's deputies shot and killed the lion after tranquilizers failed to put the animal down.

Some neighbors we spoke to said they've never been concerned with the center's level of safety -- that the park has been a good neighbor.

"I've been watching (the center) ever since they started and they've always gone above and beyond what they've been asked to do," said neighbor Kevin Outzs

Conservators Center was founded in 1999 as an "educational nonprofit dedicated to providing a specialized home for select carnivore species," according to its website.

"Anytime you have an incident you have to take the time to really assess what happened and that means some investigation," said the center's executive director Mindy Stinner.

But Caroline Laur says she spent a year and half trying and failing to get Burlington city officials to investigate her close call eight years ago.

"We went to the (city) councilmen, we were just begging for a siren so if they do get out we can be notified," she said. "I just want somebody else to hear that before somebody else gets hurt."

While the Conservators Center investigates how the lion escaped its locked pen, animal welfare advocates including PETA and the Humane Society are using the incident to renew their calls for North Carolina to crackdown on unaccredited facilities like the center.

Advocates note North Carolina is one of only four in the nation with especially lax laws on private ownership of dangerous wild animals.
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