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Published: Tuesday, 11/6/2012

Pittsburgh Zoo closes exhibit where 2-year-old boy died

Mauling by African dogs ruled cause of fatality

BY DON HOPEY AND MORIAH BALINGIT
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium will reopen today, but the African painted dog exhibit, where 2-year-old Maddox Derkosh from Whitehall was mauled to death on Sunday, will remain closed indefinitely.

At an emotional news conference, Barbara Baker, the zoo’s president and chief executive officer, said zoo personnel were nearby, responded quickly and followed all of their practiced procedures, but couldn’t do anything to help the boy, who had been hoisted onto an observation deck railing by his mother before tumbling 14 feet into the exhibit area containing 11 of the zoo’s 14 dogs.

“We had staff within 10 feet of the exhibit,” Ms. Baker said, but there was nothing that could be done. “It was too dangerous” for staff to enter the yard where the boy was.

Ms. Baker said the boy fell into the exhibit from the observation area railing and bounced twice on protective netting that extends outward from the base of the railing like a shelf. An Allegheny County medical examiner’s review found that the boy was not fatally injured in the fall but bled to death because of the mauling.

From the fence where zoo personnel could access the exhibit, the boy lay about 12 feet away, Ms. Baker said. They used dummy tranquilizers to “spook” the animals because loaded tranquilizer darts are harmful to humans. They did not want to take a chance on further hurting the boy, she said, and she added that the zoo conducts drills regularly for such emergencies and the staff responded appropriately.

“It was too dangerous to go into the yard, too dangerous to send the staff into harm’s way, and we wouldn’t ask them to do that,” Ms. Baker said.

A keeper was able to call away seven of the 11 dogs, and three more were quickly shooed away from the boy, she said.

A specially trained zoo weapons team got to the exhibit at the same time as Pittsburgh police, who were responding to a 911 call, Ms. Baker said. A Pittsburgh police officer shot one of the dogs that was acting aggressively and refused to move away from the boy.

None of the remaining 13 painted dogs will be euthanized, Ms. Baker said, although they will remain in quarantine for 30 days.

Celebrity wildlife expert Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, said African painted dogs are among the fastest and most efficient predators in Africa.

Mr. Hanna said his observations of the animals feeding in their natural wild habitats led him to believe that the boy’s life was over within “milliseconds” of the attack. He likened the speed at which they go after and devour their prey to that of a piranha.

“They are so fast,” he said. “You can’t imagine.”

He said the outcome would have been the same regardless of whether zoo personnel fired live rounds of tranquilizers — which can take time to kick in — or shot live bullets.

“I don’t care what weapons they had,” he said. “Nothing could have been done.”

Because the African painted dog is difficult to breed and care for in captivity, Mr. Hanna said, Pittsburgh’s exhibit is one of just a few in the country.

“The Pittsburgh Zoo is vital to survival of this species, because they have one of the leading programs in the world,” he said.

Ms. Baker said no decision had been made about when the painted dog exhibit will reopen. The zoo was closed Monday.

Beginning today, visitors will be allowed to pay their respects at the pavilion where the boy fell. It has been sealed off with a bamboo wall on which zoo staff hung two wreaths of roses.

There is no sign in the pavilion warning against putting children on the railing, Ms. Baker said. But the zoo does all it can to ensure the safety of visitors, she said, including a variety of design safeguards that include exhibit railings angled at 45 degrees and slanted away from the dogs’ yard.

“Life is full of risks,” she said. “We do everything we possibly can to ensure the safety of our visitors and staff. But we do work with wild and dangerous animals. And there is no such thing as a foolproof exhibit.”

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Don Hopey and Moriah Balingit are reporters for the Post-Gazette.

Contact Don Hopey at: dhopey@post-gazette.com, or 412-263-1983.

 



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