Pittsburgh zoo settles federal investigation of mauling death by African painted dogs

The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium has agreed to pay $4,550 to the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of a settlement, ending the agency's review of the death in 2012 of a toddler who was fatally mauled after he fell into a wild dog exhibit, zoo officials announced Thursday.

The settlement, and waiver of the zoo's right to a hearing, closes the USDA's investigation of the death at the African painted dog exhibit. But, the zoo said in a news release, it is not an admission of liability.

"It is important that we are able to take this step to move forward in order for everyone to heal," zoo president and CEO Barbara Baker said in a 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."

Members of the zoo's board of directors donated their own money for the settlement, according to the release.

"We want to demonstrate our full support of the zoo, Dr. Baker, and zoo staff," board chairman Rick Kalson said in the zoo's statement.

Maddox Derkosh, 2, of Whitehall was killed Nov. 4, 2012, after he fell over the railing at the exhibit and was mauled. His mother, Elizabeth Derkosh, had been holding him, and witnesses said the little boy wriggled out of her arms.

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, Ms. Baker said last year.

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said in October 2013 that he would look into information that the safety committee at the zoo reported concerns about parents holding children over the railing of the exhibit more than six years before the accident.

The USDA inspects zoos mainly for animal care and welfare issues and had inspected the Pittsburgh Zoo 35 times since the painted dog exhibit opened in 2006.

The USDA does at least one annual inspection at the zoo under the Animal Welfare Act, the zoo has said.

When the USDA announced that it planned to conduct an inspection after the boy's death, a spokesman said the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service would look for any possible violations of the Animal Welfare Act that could have contributed to the incident.

Part of the investigation was to ensure there were proper barriers between dangerous animals and the public.

The agency said if violations were found, penalties could include an official warning letter, fines, a suspension of the facility's license to exhibit animals, and a permanent revocation of that license.

The zoo's news release said it would not grant interviews nor provide more comment on the settlement.

The settlement with the USDA is not expected to have any bearing on lawsuits filed by the boy's parents against the zoo and the zoo against his mother.

Ms. Derkosh and the boy's father, Jason Derkosh, sued the zoo in May for wrongful death and negligence stemming from the incident.

One of the 11 animals in the enclosure was killed by a police officer during the attack, and the remaining 10 were sent to other facilities. The exhibit never reopened.

In September, the zoo filed a cross-claim against Ms. Derkosh, alleging that her son's death should be attributed to the "carelessness, negligence and/or recklessness of Elizabeth Derkosh."

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944. First Published February 13, 2014 3:29 PM


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