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Intern Killed By Lion At North Carolina Animal Center

A lion killed a 22-year-old intern at a North Carolina animal center during a routine enclosure cleaning, devastating the small facility and raising questions about how the animal escaped.

Alexandra Black had just recently started her internship at the Conservators Center, which is located in Burlington, N.C., and home to about 80 animals.

According to the center, she was cleaning the enclosure with a team "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."

Authorities are investigating how the animal entered the area Black was cleaning.

The male lion, identified as 14-year-old-Matthai, was euthanized "out of necessity," the center's executive director Mindy Stinner told reporters. Sheriff's deputies were called to help the center's staff.

"The stress level was high," Caswell County Sheriff Tony Durden told WRAL-TV. "I know they're not used to having a 600-pound animal. And then having a young lady laying on the ground, so, you know, stress."

The center remembers Black as a "vibrant, smart young woman."

"We only knew this person a short time," Stinner said, calling the loss "devastating."

"This person's passion was the zoological industry. ... And this person wanted to spend a lifetime around these animals," she added, speaking before Black was formally identified.

"She was a beautiful young woman who had just started her career, there was a terrible accident, and we are mourning," Black's family said in a statement, according to The Associated Press.

Black had completed an internship at Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Ind., earlier this month. "Alex will always be remembered as a strong, compassionate and dedicated woman with a heart-warming smile," the park said in a tribute to her.

Stinner said that at the time of the attack, there were visitors on site but they were safely evacuated using the center's prepared safety protocol.

She said the facility will be closed indefinitely.

"We need to assess our situation and we need to make sure that everyone here is safe and feels safe. Because this is a very scary thing," Stinner added. "And so we really need time to evaluate our situation and to make sure that we're ready to invite guests back into the park. And that may be a little time."

The facility is home to at least 14 lions. Matthai's image and information is no longer on the center's website, but the center said in a statement that he was "born at the Conservators Center shortly after his mother was placed with us following a USDA-assisted confiscation in 2004."

The Conservators Center, an educational non-profit, was founded in 1999. Stinner described it as a "community zoo."

Kitty Block, Acting President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, stated that this incident "illustrates the need for strong legislation to better restrict the private possession of dangerous wild animals."

She added that "North Carolina is one of only four states with little to no laws prohibiting the private possession of dangerous wild animals."

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.