Pittsburgh Zoo mauling death disconcerts parents, kids


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Joelene Holderny couldn't sleep Sunday night.

The 36-year-old mother of two doesn't know the family of the child killed at the Pittsburgh Zoo. But she knows the zoo, where she takes her family every few weeks in the summer. She knows the wild dogs, a favorite of her sons, who watch them sleep in a pile trying to figure out which legs belong to which dogs. And she now knows the unsettling feeling of ruminating on it all.

"Since this all happened I keep closing my eyes and picturing the railing," Ms. Holderny of Ross said. "I was up all night thinking about it and thinking about that mother."

Because it was so unusual, so public and so shocking, the death of 2-year-old Maddox Derkosh of Whitehall, killed by the zoo's African painted dogs, has resonated deeply with many parents, children and other Pittsburghers following the story.

"It's very scary for children, and it's very scary for parents as well," said Anthony Mannarino, director of the Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents at Allegheny General Hospital. "For all of us who are parents, you think about all the situations that your kids are in, not just at the zoo but other places. I wouldn't be surprised if parents have ramped up their safety efforts, not just at the zoo but in general."

That emotional trauma extended even to Barbara Baker, president of the Pittsburgh Zoo, who cried at several points during a Monday afternoon news conference.

"We are all moms here, we are all dads here," she said, asking people to pray for the family.

Ms. Holderny was walking out of a movie with her children when she learned about the zoo death via a Facebook post on her phone. She reacted visibly enough that her 6-year-old son, Jesse, asked her what was wrong. So she sat down on a bench at the Waterfront to try to explain what she knew to him and her 4-year-old, Simon.

They asked about the child, about his family, about the wild dogs and whether regular dogs could do that, too.

And she tried to answer as frankly as possible -- preferring that the boys found out information from her instead of from other children at school.

"I don't know if I'm doing the right thing or not," she said, "but I don't want to lie to them or mislead them."

Mr. Mannarino recommends that parents be direct and reassuring with their children. For children 10 and under, he said, parents should explain that while "sad and scary, these kind of things hardly ever happen." Parents should also reassure their children that "if we went to the zoo, we'd be sure you're safe."

With younger kids who probably won't find out about the incident on their own, there's no need to tell them, he said.

With older kids, he said, a more robust and interactive discussion would probably be necessary, about how such a thing could have happened.

Abigail Schlesinger, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said parents should try not to tell children more than they need to know.

"Parents need to remember for themselves that this is really upsetting for them and to meet the kids where they're at -- not to answer more than they're asking." She recommended telling children that this was an accident and that their parents will keep them safe.

If children do seem particularly worried or overly focused, she recommended calling their pediatrician to determine whether their responses are within the normal range.

Younger children who are anxious about the zoo incident might show it through trouble sleeping or difficulty separating from a parent, said Mr. Mannarino, noting that with extra reassurance it will probably pass.

Brad Stephenson of O'Hara was able to satisfy his 3-year-old daughter, Sadie, by telling her just that an accident had happened when she asked questions after hearing conversation among adults at a birthday party Sunday night.

"We've tried to shield her from it," he said. "We're still at an age where fortunately if she asks a question it's easy to put off."

Mr. Stephenson and his family visit the zoo frequently, and he said he doesn't think he'll feel any differently the next time that he goes.

What's been particularly disturbing for him -- and other tech-savvy parents -- has been the swift and furious blame game for the tragedy that has been playing out on the zoo's Facebook page and through other social media outlets.

Facebook status updates requesting sensitivity have drawn thousands of "likes" and hundreds of shares.

"My initial reaction was obviously heartache for the family and for the zoo and its staff," he said. "Beyond that, I do get annoyed that people's first reaction in the age of social media is to immediately start to place blame."

That blame-placing, while unseemly, is one way that people process the horror of the incident, Mr. Mannarino said.

"When these horrible, unpredictable, unplanned events happen, we all need to have a reason," he said. "If it's really out of control, that's what makes it so scary. We want to think that we have control, so if we blame the zoo, blame the family, it's better than thinking it's a freak accident that could happen to any of us."

For Ms. Holderny, the sense that it could happen to anyone with children is part of what's so troubling.

"We're all right at the edge of being someone's cautionary tale at any moment," she said.

Ms. Holderny will certainly return to the zoo, but she now finds herself wondering about the safety of other exhibits there, too: the depth of the tiger moat, the time that her son ran ahead of her toward the wild dog railing.

The African painted dogs will be quarantined for at least 30 days, but she is wondering what the exhibit will look like the next time she sees it.

And she's thinking of bringing flowers for her and her children to place there.

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Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308. First Published November 6, 2012 5:00 AM


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