BURLINGTON, N.C. – A witness told authorities a gate blocked by a ball at a North Carolina animal preserve allowed a lion to reach three people at the start of a fatal attack, biting one intern's ankle and pulling her into the enclosure, according to a medical examiner's report.
A Caswell County sheriff's lieutenant advised that animal trainer Ashley Watts reported separating the 14-year-old lion named Matthai into a section of an enclosure at the Conservators Center in Burlington on Dec. 30, according to the report first published by WRAL-TV. Watts said the gate securing that section was blocked by a large ball and the lion entered the area that Watts, 22-year-old intern Alex Black and a second intern were cleaning, the report stated. Before she could close the gate, the lion bit Black's ankle, pulling her into the enclosure, the report said.
The sheriff's official, Lt. Eugene Riddick, said fire department personnel used a firehose to separate the lion and Black without success, the report noted. The lion dragged Black around the enclosure by her neck "for an extended amount of time." After attempts to sedate the lion with darts failed, deputies shot the lion eight times, killing the animal, the report said.
The initial assessment showed Black died from multiple deep lacerations to the neck with significant blood loss, according to the report. It lists the probable cause of death as "Mauling by Animal."
In a statement provided to WFMY-TV, the center disputes reports that the gate was obstructed by a ball, saying that is "neither accurate nor plausible." However, the center does not explain how the lion was able to reach the three.
The attack occurred less than two weeks after Black, a recent college graduate from New Palestine, Indiana, had begun working at the nonprofit wildlife facility. The center, described recently as a "community zoo" by its executive director, was founded in 1999.
USDA inspections in 2017 and 2018 found no problems at the center, according to government reports. A government inspector counted 16 lions among 85 total animals in 2018.
The center stresses in its statement that as an intern, Black wasn't responsible for the accident and that "all credible evidence" indicates that she was "killed almost instantly" and first responders were "conducting a recovery not a rescue." The center reviewed safety policies and procedures and re-trained staff, and said it's confident that, when followed, those existing policies and procedures are sufficient.
Lt. Darrell McLean, a spokesman for the Caswell County Sheriff's Office, declined comment Wednesday.