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Maintaining safe animal preserve best way to honor intern mauled by lion, director says

Posted January 3, 2020 6:29 p.m. EST

— A year after a lion killed an intern at an exotic animal preserve in Caswell County, the director says she's committed to safety and the preserve's mission.

Alex Black was killed on Dec. 30, 2018, when a lion was able to escape its enclosure at the Conservators Center and attack her. Deputies later killed the lion.

Executive Director Mindy Stinner said Friday that it has been a tough year since the tragedy, but she and her staff are trying to look ahead and showcase the value of the 45-acre preserve, which is home to 78 animals, including big cats and wolves.

"We honor her by making sure everything we do here is as safe as we can make it," Stinner said of Black. "We did retraining. We reassessed all of our policies and procedures, and we really found that we were comfortable with them, but we wanted to make sure everything was fully enforced."

According to a medical examiner's report released in February, a large ball blocked a door from closing properly after the lion had been placed inside a pen while humans entered the enclosure.

An attorney representing the Conservators Center has disputed the report, calling it "neither accurate nor plausible."

Stinner declined Friday to discuss the circumstances surrounding Black's death.

The state Department of Labor levied a $3,000 fine for workplace safety violations against the Conservators Center last summer, citing the preserve for "ineffective procedures" for securing the lion enclosure, a lack of a preventive maintenance program to ensure the enclosure door worked properly and an inadequate emergency response plan.

Stinner said she considers the fines appropriate, acknowledging that, at the moment Black was attacked, it was not a safe working environment.

"What happened last year will not be repeated with our policies and procedures in place and everybody following them," she said. "We're heavily trained. We have a very professional staff. I'm very proud of them, and I do not believe that mistake will ever be repeated."

The 10 employees of the Conservators Center have become more protective of one another and more mindful of procedures in the wake of Black's death, she said.

Hannah Fullmer, the lead keeper at the preserve, said she "absolutely" feels confident she and other workers are safe among the animals.

The preserve is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but Stinner said she would welcome more state regulations, though no proposal has yet become law.

She said the public still supports the preserve's mission, with about 16,000 people total visiting on weekends last year to experience it.

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