USDA says Pittsburgh zoo failed to maintain adequate distance from African painted dogs

A federal penalty for $4,550 assessed against the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium came in part because the zoo's African painted dog exhibit did not have sufficient distance and barriers between the animals and the general public.

The finding, released Friday in a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was the culmination of the agency's investigation into the November 2012 death of 2-year-old Maddox Derkosh, who was mauled by the painted dogs after he fell into their exhibit.

"During public exhibition, you failed to handle animals so that there was minimal risk of harm to the animals and to the public, with sufficient distance and/or barriers between the animals and the general viewing public," read the violation.

As part of the same financial penalty, the zoo was also cited for an incident on September 12, 2012, when an inspector noticed cockroaches on the bars of the orangutan enclosures.

The zoo announced the fine Thursday in a statement, noting that the board of directors donated personal funds to pay the penalty.

"It is important that we are able to take this step to move forward in order for everyone to heal," said Barbara Baker, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, in the statement. "Safety is always a top priority. All of our exhibits meet the highest USDA and [Association of Zoos and Aquariums] standards, and we will continue to work with both agencies to ensure those standards are met and exceeded."

The zoo and the USDA noted that the payment for the violation is not to be construed as an admission of liability on the part of the zoo.

The zoo said it would not comment or answer questions aside from its statement on Thursday.

Tanya Espinosa, public affairs specialist for the USDA, declined to break down what portion of the $4,550 penalty corresponded to which violation.

The maximum possible penalty per noncompliance citation is $10,000, she said, so for two violations the USDA could have levied a fine up to $20,000.

When a Siberian tiger escaped its enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo and killed a man on Christmas Day 2007, the USDA later levied a fine of $1,800 for improper enclosure design.

The USDA conducts annual inspections of American zoos under the Animal Welfare Act. The USDA had inspected the zoo 35 times since the African painted dog exhibit opened in 2006 and had not raised safety concerns with the exhibit.

The USDA routinely re-inspects facilities in response to an "adverse event" such as human or animal injury.

The fact that they did not flag the exhibit in the past doesn't mean that they shouldn't issue a fine in this instance, said Ms. Espinosa.

"What we look at are performance-based standards. You have to ensure there are sufficient fencing requirements so that this sort of incident doesn't occur, and what this means is that it wasn't sufficient."

The parents of Maddox Derkosh are suing the zoo, alleging the zoo had been warned about safety concerns with the exhibit several times by employees prior to the incident. The zoo has responded by saying that the accident was solely the fault of Maddox's mother, Elizabeth Derkosh, who lifted him over the 4-foot railing.

Investigations of the accident by the Allegheny County district attorney's office and the zoo's own internal review did not find any wrongdoing by the zoo.

Anya Sostek: or 412-263-1308. First Published February 14, 2014 9:46 AM


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