What we know about the Conservators Center, where a lion killed an intern

Posted at 7:57 PM, Jan 01, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-01 19:57:55-05

On Sunday, a lion escaped a locked holding enclosure and killed a 22-year-old college intern working at the Conservators Center during a routine cleaning at the North Carolina zoological park. Here is what we know about the facility:

What is the Conservators Center?

Wildlife specialists Mindy Stinner and Douglas Evans founded the center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, in 1999 in Mebane, North Carolina, according to the center website. Two years later, it relocated to its current location, a 45-acre swath in Burlington, west of Durham, the center said.

The center “reconnects people with wildlife by introducing visitors to rare, threatened and endangered species…,” according to its website. The center, which started offering public tours in 2007, receives funding from educational programming, partnerships with businesses, donations and occasional grants, it said.

Stinner told CNN affiliate WNCN the center first started doing rescue and sanctuary work but moved away from that emphasis and began working with more species, trying to involve the community more. “We like to think of ourselves as kind of a community zoo,” she said.

Who regulates the center?

Animal rights groups criticized the center, calling for more oversight. In a statement, Brittany Peet, director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement for the PETA Foundation, called on lawmakers to make it illegal for nonaccredited facilities to possess wild and exotic animals.

“Humans and captive animals will keep losing their lives as long as unaccredited roadside zoos like the so-called ‘Conservators Center’ keep imprisoning dangerous animals for entertainment,” Peet said.

The center is regulated by the US Department of Agriculture, according to Stinner. No problems were identified during routine inspections in January 2017 and April 2018, according to USDA records.

The center, on its website, said it is not accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, which accredits facilities, but it works with facilities worldwide “to help manage a few of the thousands of species not included in the (Association of Zoos & Aquariums) breeding program.”

The center said it considers its work “complementary” to the association.

“Until we choose to apply for any accreditation, we will continue to meet (and often exceed) the standards put in place by the USDA for all facilities open to the public that house exotics, regardless of accreditation,” the website said.

What kind of animals are housed there?

The center houses more than 20 species of exotic animals, including about 20 big cats (lions, leopards, and tigers). The 2018 USDA inspector counted 16 lions out of 85 animals.

Where do the animals come from?

Some animals were retired to the center from other zoological programs, the center said. The owners of some smaller cats let the center care for them. Some older animals were handed over to the center instead of being euthanized, the center said.

Which lion killed the worker?

Center officials identified the lion who escaped and mauled Alexandra Black to death as Matthai. The 14-year-old lion was born at the facility shortly after his mother was placed at the center as the result of a government-assisted confiscation in 2007, the center said. Matthai could usually be found sunning or lounging in a hammock, the center said in his bio, which is no longer on the website.

“He is a little nervous by nature, so he relies on cues from his bolder neighbors like Willow and Calvin when deciding how to react to new experiences like a person playing acoustic guitar nearby or if there is a loud noise nearby,” the bio said. Matthai was killed by first responders “by necessity,” officials said.