Picture: Paballo Thekiso/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

North Carolina - A graduate was mauled to death by a lion two weeks after she started an internship at a wildlife sanctuary.

Alexandra Black had taken a series of unpaid jobs at conservation centres to fulfil her dream of working with animals.

But on Sunday the 22-year-old American was attacked and killed by a male lion shortly after starting at the Conservators Center in North Carolina.

The lion, a 14-year-old called Matthai, is thought to have escaped from a locked holding pen while keepers were doing a routine cleaning of the lion enclosure.

Zoo workers reportedly scrambled to tranquilise the lion but were unable to do so. The animal was shot dead so that police could retrieve Miss Black’s body.

Her family paid tribute to the graduate. "Our beautiful, intelligent, passionate Alex had worked, unpaid, at several animal-related ventures," they said.

"This was her fourth internship, because she really wanted to make a career of working with animals."

Miss Black, from New Palestine, Indiana, was a recent graduate of Indiana State University, according to police.

A spokesman for the Conservators Center said: "Alex was working with one of our husbandry teams cleaning a lion enclosure, 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.

"When our husbandry teams clean big cat enclosures they follow a safety protocol that involves moving the cats into a separate space and securing them before humans enter the adjacent space. The specifics of what happened are still under investigation."

They said they were "heartbroken" at the loss of Miss Black, who they described as a "vibrant, smart young woman".

Chief executive Mindy Stinner said: "It’s very important what we do here. This is the love of our lives. But we need to make sure that everything here is going to be safe for our people and for the public."

According to the sanctuary’s website Matthai, one of 15 lions housed at the centre, was shy and nervous around loud noises and music. The website states that he was "more shy than his siblings Calvin, Katrina and Savik when it comes to visitors, but he is an enthusiastic recipient of attention from the people he knows best.

"He is a little nervous by nature, so he relies on cues from his bolder neighbours 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 45-acre centre, which accepts animals rescued from "unacceptable conditions", is home to 80 animals. It will remain closed until further notice.

Daily Mail