911 call released from North Carolina zoo where lion escaped and killed intern

State officials and the zoo are still investigating how the lion managed to escape a locked area while its enclosure was being cleaned.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Scott Stump

A newly released 911 call reveals the chilling moments after a lion escaped a locked area on Sunday morning and killed a young intern at a North Carolina zoo.

In the call, a worker at the Conservators Center in Burlington, near Greensboro, tells a dispatcher that they've had "a lion attack" and the victim, 22-year-old Alexandra Black, was badly hurt.

"The person that was attacked, how are, how, how bad are they hurt?" the dispatcher asks.

"They're incapacitated," the caller says.

Black had only been working at the zoo for 10 days when she was killed by a 14-year-old male lion named Matthai, who escaped a locked area around 11:30 a.m. The attack occurred while Black was helping a staffer clean the enclosure, zoo and police officials said.

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Caswell County sheriff's deputies shot and killed the lion when repeated attempts to tranquilize it failed.

"It took several shots to bring him down,'' Sgt. Michael Griggs said on TODAY Wednesday. "He was amped up."

The lion was born at the sanctuary, which houses more than 80 animals, including 14 lions and tigers that were saved in 2004 from poor living conditions in Ohio. The Conservators Center said in a statement to TODAY that it follows a safety protocol when cleaning big cat enclosures.

The zoo is currently closed while it conducts an investigation into how the lion got free. North Carolina's Occupational Safety and Health Division is also investigating whether any safety standards were violated.

"This is not a situation we've ever had before,'' Conservators Center executive director Mindy Stinner said in a statement to TODAY. "Safety is a very, very important feature of running any zoological park. Working with wild animals like this is a highly skilled profession, and it's something we take very seriously. So any sort of incident like this is devastating to everyone."

Meanwhile, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called the center a "roadside zoo" and urged North Carolina lawmakers to make it illegal for non-accredited facilities to have wild and exotic animals.

The facility passed two recent inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and has no reported safety complaints.

Black's family mourned her loss in a statement released Monday, saying the animal lover "died following her passion."

The recent Indiana University graduate had previously interned at Wolf Park, an education and research facility in her home state of Indiana. Her boss at Wolf Park described her to TODAY's Gabe Gutierrez as "a wildlife whisperer."

"She loved everyone she met and loved all the animals she came across,'' Wolf Park manager Dana Drenzek said.

The release of the 911 call comes a day after another terrifying incident at a zoo. A family's New Year's Day trip to the Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Florida, nearly turned deadly when a 2-year-old girl fell into a rhinoceros exhibit.

The toddler was hospitalized after she came in contact with the snout of one of the rhinos, zoo officials said. The zoo is currently closed while the incident is investigated.