BURLINGTON, N.C. — A photograph of Alexandra Black is floating around online that her former English teacher thinks truly captures the young woman’s essence.
Black is bundled up in a winter coat and scarf; her cheeks are red from the chilly air of whatever day this photo was captured. And she’s standing nose to nose with a wolf, perfectly calm. She smiles as, in a subsequent image, the animal licks her face.
What bravery, Caroline Clayton said. What pluck.
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Clayton is an English teacher at New Palestine High School who taught Alexandra. And what Clayton remembers most about Black — the 22-year-old New Palestine native who was killed Sunday by a lion at the wildlife conservatory in North Carolina where she was an intern — is that sense of courage and adventurousness she always carried with her.
Black was friendly and kind. She was compassionate and open to new people and ideas. She set goals, and then she chased them, even when they took her far from her home and her family.
And that same sense of bravery that put her in close contact with the world’s wildest animals was the same sense of bravery that empowered her to walk up to someone in the cafeteria sitting alone and become their friend right then and there.
“This girl didn’t have the problem of being scared,” Clayton said Monday, hours after learning about her former student’s death.
It was heartbreaking news to say the least, Clayton said. But, she said, at least Alexandra was chasing her dreams when tragedy struck.
The young woman’s family is carrying that same sentiment as they face a new year without their daughter.
In a statement, they said: “(Alexandra) was a beautiful young woman who had just started her career, there was a terrible accident, and we are mourning. But she died following her passion.”
Black recently moved to North Carolina to begin an internship at the Conservators Center in Caswell County, about 50 miles northwest of Raleigh.
Sunday, she was assisting with a routine cleaning when a lion, which had somehow gotten loose from its enclosure, attacked her. The center said the lion, a 14-year-old male named Matthai, was shot and killed to allow county personnel to retrieve Black’s body.
On its website, the center, which was founded in 1999, said it began giving public tours in 2007 and gets more than 16,000 visitors annually. It has more than a dozen employees and currently houses more than 80 animals and more than 21 species.
The center says it took in 14 lions and tigers in 2004 to assist the U.S. Department of Agriculture with caring for animals that were living in “unacceptable conditions.” Matthai was born there shortly after his mother arrived.
Authorities in North Carolina are still investigating Black’s death.
Investigators say a “husbandry team” led by a professionally trained animal keeper was carrying out the cleaning when the animal got loose. It wasn’t immediately clear how the lion left its enclosure, which was supposed to be locked. The center will be closed until further notice as the investigation continues.
No problems were found at the nonprofit nature center during inspections by the USDA in January 2017 or April 2018, according to government reports. A government inspector counted 16 lions, three tigers and two leopards among 85 total animals during the 2018 site visit.
In a statement, the Conservators Center said its staff was “devastated by the loss of a human life.”
Black had only been working at the center for about two weeks.
According to her profile on LinkedIn, Black graduated with honors from New Palestine High School in 2014 and earned a degree in animal behavior in May from Indiana University. She had completed three unpaid wildlife internships since 2017, according to the site.
Black loved animals and was excited for this chance to move out of state to work with them, her family said in its statement.
Black’s passion for creatures was clear, even in her teenage years. She volunteered at Frenzy Animal Rescue in New Palestine for about a year during high school, cleaning kennels, walking dogs and helping with office work, said Betty Wilkins, director of the center.
Black was so gifted that Wilkins said she would regularly put her in charge of training new volunteers, entrusting her to show the others how to care for the animals.
Most recently, Black worked at Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana. This nonprofit research and educational center in Tippecanoe County cares for wolves, foxes, coyotes and a herd of bison, according to its website. Black completed a three-month internship there that ended in early December.
When students choose to work at Wolf Park to further their education, they’re typically trying to better narrow down what area of animal care and management they most want to pursue, whether it’s conservation, research, veterinary medicine or another field; and that was definitely Black’s goal for her internship, said Dana Drenzek, the park’s managing director.
During her time at Wolf Park, Black made an impression on the staff there, Drenzek said. She was quiet but approachable. She was a hard worker and had a thirst for knowledge.
The team there was saddened by the news of her death; but they hope to honor her memory by renaming a wolf enclosure in the park after Black. Maybe, in some small way, that will help her passion for wildlife live on, Drenzek said.
Black’s parents, Thomas and Carolyn, live in New Palestine. She has two sisters, Sarah and Cate. They’re asking the community to consider making contributions in their daughter’s honor to Wolf Park. More information about how to donate can be found at wolfpark.org.
Funeral arrangements are pending.