For Carolina Tiger Rescue

Tragic death reinforces need for safety

BY CASEY MANN, News + Record Staff
Posted 1/10/19

The death of intern Alex Black, who was killed by a lion Dec. 30 at the Conservators Center in Burlington, made national headlines and sparked conversations about big cat and exotic animal centers and safety.

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For Carolina Tiger Rescue

Tragic death reinforces need for safety

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The death of intern Alex Black, who was killed by a lion Dec. 30 at the Conservators Center in Burlington, made national headlines and sparked conversations about big cat and exotic animal centers and safety.

Black, who had been at the Conservators Center for ten days, was attacked while cleaning the animal’s enclosure. Law enforcement officers killed the animal firing eight shots from their weapons which included a shot gun.

The state’s Occupational Safety and Health Division is investigating the incident. In a statement released by the Conservators Center, the “specifics of what happened are still under investigation” as to how the animal was able to free itself from its locked enclosure.

Chatham County hosts one of the oldest big cat preservation centers in the state, Carolina Tiger Rescue, formally the Carnivore Preservation Trust. Following a cougar attack on a volunteer in 1998, the organization went through a major overhaul to improve safety and conditions at the sanctuary.

 “Working with dangerous animals is very dangerous,” Carolina Tiger Rescue’s Assistant Director Kathryn Bertok said. “We’ve been here around 45 years and we work really hard to make sure it’s safe for our visitors, staff, and volunteers.”

The facility now uses a four-level enclosure labeling system. Enclosures with large cats are never entered when an animal is present. The enclosures also feature shiftable enclosures to relocate animals when employees need to enter the animals’ areas.

“We are looking at our policies and procedures all the time,” Bertok said. “Anytime something like this happens, whether locally or nationally, we take a step back and look at the policies and procedures to see if we can make it stronger.

“We have to be pro-active and humble enough to know you can learn,” she said.

The Carolina Tiger Rescue currently hosts 28 big cats as well as other exotic animals. None of the cats at the Carolina Tiger Rescue have been involved in this type of incident.

The organization has a strict value system that exotic animals should not be used for entertainment, as pets, nor bred in captivity. These animals, ideally, need to be in the wild.

To that end, the Carolina Tiger Rescue accepts big cats from individuals and facilities that can no longer maintain them. The organization requires any former owner complete a contract stating they will no longer own a similar animal as a pet. The hope is to discourage owners from eliminating one problem animal only to purchase another.

“We don’t want to be part of the problem,” Bertok said. “We want to be part of the solution.”

North Carolina hosts numerous exotic animal facilities. Some allow visitors, others do not. The facilities range from sanctuaries to educational centers to perhaps the most dangerous facilities, the roadside attraction.

According to World Wildlife Federation, there are there are more captive tigers in the U.S. than tigers in the wild. The group estimates that at least 5,000 tigers are in captivity in the U.S., but notes that those numbers could be as high as 10,000.

North Carolina is one of four states that do not have any law prohibiting the private ownership of big cats.

Advocates for stricter laws made progress on a bill that would prohibit individual ownership of big cats in North Carolina in 2014. The bill passed the N.C. House of Representatives, but the bill languished in the N.C. Senate.

The attack has renewed the call from the Humane Society of the U.S. to institute stricter laws with regard to big cats. The organization is hopeful that the Big Cat Public Safety Act will be introduced during the incoming Congressional session.

The bill seeks to create a “framework for regulating the private possession of dangerous wild animals,” according to the group’s website. The bill would also “address the thousands of animals being kept as pets or in grossly substandard conditions at unaccredited zoos, and end future ownership of big cats by unqualified individuals.”

While the changes will benefit the cats and the safety of those near them, it will likely result in a greater need for organizations such as Carolina Tiger Rescue.

“All big cats raised in captivity have been habituated to humans and would not be able to go to the wild,” Bertok said. “In the wild, the animals are taught by their mothers and their pride to hunt and kill.”

“They have the instincts but have not been trained. They would approach humans for food putting both the animal and the humans at risk,” she said.


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