African painted dogs kill 2-year-old who fell into Pittsburgh zoo exhibit

Pleasant Hills toddler falls from gazebo railing into African painted dogs exhibit, is killed in minutes


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A 2-year-old boy fell 14 feet into the African painted dog exhibit area at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium shortly before noon Sunday and was mauled to death by the dogs.

Police said the child lost his balance after his mother lifted him in a standing position onto the 4-foot-high wooden railing of an elevated, gazebolike structure that overlooks the enclosure. He toppled over the railing, hit a mesh shelf and landed on the ground of the open exhibit space, where he was set upon by the 11 dogs in the area.

The medical examiner's office would not release the child's name Sunday evening. Police said he and his 34-year-old mother are from Pleasant Hills and were visiting the zoo with cousins, an adult and another child.

Major Crimes Lt. Kevin Kraus declined to comment on potential charges and said the bureau will continue to investigate to determine if anything could have prevented the death.

Angela Cinti, 20, of Bethel Park saw the attack and described a horrifying scene that lasted minutes but seemed like hours.

PG graphic: African Painted Dogs exhibit
(Click image for larger version)

"The screams just kept coming and coming," said Ms. Cinti, who was at the zoo with her boyfriend. "We were on our way to the polar bear exhibit when we heard the most horrible piercing screams. ... Someone was begging for help, asking someone to do something."

As they ran toward the screams, she saw a small crowd of distressed onlookers and the little boy's apparently lifeless body lying on the hill inside the painted dog exhibit with three of the animals at his head, neck and leg.

Lt. Kraus said no one in the crowd of observers went in after the child. The boy was pronounced dead at the scene at noon, 12 minutes after the first 911 call.

Lt. Kraus said an initial group of zoo personnel reached the scene minutes after the boy's fall and lured seven of the dogs away from him and into a secure area. A second set began throwing objects and using other distraction techniques to secure three more dogs.

PG VIDEO

"Dummy tranquilizer rounds" were shot into the exhibit in an effort to scare the dogs away, which zoo officials said were ineffective because "the dogs were in pack mentality and not responding." Lt. Kraus said zoo personnel might have avoided using real rounds in fear of further injuring the child. Zoo personnel were not available to explain their reasoning.

A final dog, which was acting very aggressively toward the victim and zoo personnel, was shot multiple times by police officers and later died. Police are trying to determine if the animal had a history of threatening behavior.

"It's been traumatic for everybody," Lt. Kraus. "From what I understand what occurred at that scene until it was secured was horrific."

Zoo president and chief executive officer Barbara Baker said, "Our hearts and prayers and deepest sympathies go out to the family of the child."

Bart DePasquale was near the tiger exhibit just before noon Sunday when he heard the screams coming from up the hill, where the African painted dogs are housed.

"People were yelling 'Get away,' and 'Stay away,' and it wasn't just one person, it was an entire group of people," said Mr. DePasquale, who was at the zoo with his children to attend a birthday party. "The screams sounded heavily distressed, and the people were using profanity. They were shouting to zoo employees."

Mr. DePasquale, 29, of Fox Chapel said they were told to go inside to the children's center where two birthday parties were under way, and they were kept there for about a half-hour.

"We were locked down in the building and told to stay inside. The zoo employees said it was a 'code red,' " he said. "We thought it was a problem with one of the animals that got loose. Then we were told it was an incident with the wild dogs and that a child had been hurt."

Ms. Baker said a "code red" means that there was a serious human emergency in play.

A short time later zoo personnel told the adults at the birthday parties that the zoo was closed and they needed to leave. The zoo will be closed indefinitely.

"On the way out I saw a mother who was distressed and crying and other people who couldn't even talk about it," Mr. DePasquale said. "We could hear screams of the crowds of people and anyone who had been close was almost in tears, was walking out glassy-eyed. That's when multiple people told me the dogs attacked a young child."

Lt. Kraus said the boy's father, who arrived at the zoo shortly after the attack, and mother received medical treatment for emotional trauma.

Ms. Baker said no decision has been made about the future of the exhibit.

The African painted dog exhibit debuted after the October 2006 birth of nine pups. A surrogate mutt was drafted into service for the pups after their natural mother died of a ruptured uterus. In the spring of this year, nine of the 11 painted dogs escaped a section of their enclosure, causing a brief shutdown of the zoo.

Ms. Baker said at that time, on May 5, that the dogs got into a 1.5-acre "backup yard" not visible to the public, but the dogs were not out of their exhibit.

African painted dogs are an endangered species.

In September, the zoo announced that it had again been accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums after a review of its animal care, veterinary programs, conservation, education and safety.

AZA is a nonprofit with a team of professionals that inspect and review each zoo or aquarium seeking accreditation. Currently 224 facilities have been recognized and approved by the organization. The Pittsburgh zoo has been recognized by AZA since 1986.

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Taryn Luna: 412-263-1985 or tluna@post-gazette.com. Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983. Karen Kane: kkane@post-gazette.com or 724-772-9180. First Published November 5, 2012 5:00 AM


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