Under Tuesday's brilliant blue skies, Leslie Hammond was strolling with three of her six children along the pathways at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, up past pacing tigers, a curious ostrich and graceful giraffes.
At the African painted dogs observation deck and pavilion where 2-year-old Maddox Derkosh fell into the exhibit and was mauled to death Sunday, she paused and struggled to fight back tears.
There, in the shadows, on the floor of the bamboo-shuttered pavilion, were two lit candles, two teddy-bears, three bouquets of flowers, an illustration bearing the message "Our thoughts and prayers are with you," and a toy truck and bulldozer.
"I feel terrible. I've brought my six kids through here many times over the years and have a family membership at the zoo, so I came here today because I wanted to offer my support," said Ms. Hammond of Highland Park as Quinn, 10, Evyn, 8, and Sloane, 6, ran ahead, toward the bear dens.
She said her children always looked forward to stopping at the painted dog exhibit, which opened in 2006, and enjoyed watching the nine painted dog pups, born in 2009.
"It was fun for them watching the puppies grow up. This was always a must stop," Ms. Hammond said. "I feel terrible for the family and for everyone involved and for the zoo."
Despite the sunny day and the Election Day closure of numerous schools, attendance at the zoo was very light Tuesday morning. Except for a couple of previously scheduled school field trips, the zoo did not have one visitor come through its gates for the first hour and a half after it opened at 9 a.m.
Total attendance for the day was 416, said Tracy Gray, a zoo spokeswoman, who termed it "average."
By noon there still seemed to be more animals than people at the Highland Park facility, but Jennifer Balkey of Wilkins was there with her two sons, Lucus, 3 and Max, 14 months.
"Oh, we come all the time and I feel it's very safe bringing the kids here, but we have rules we have to follow," Ms. Balkey said. "What happened was a tragic event, but I think that with a little bit more parental supervision it could have been avoided."
Joann Vaughn of Mt. Lebanon also said she sets rules for her boys, Jack, 6, and Walker, 4, at the zoo.
"I don't think it's dangerous, and I don't let them do climbing and I wouldn't pick them up," said Ms. Vaughn, who has a family zoo membership and comes with her boys a half dozen times a year. "There are things that they can climb on, but we have talked and they know they don't climb on exhibits. They know that the animals are wild, even if they look warm and fuzzy."
Angela Benoit of Canonsburg hadn't been to the zoo for over a year with her young son, Christian, but was there Tuesday. She said the painted dog exhibit was one of his favorites and he'd heard some of what occurred Sunday.
"I took the opportunity to explain to him the need for safety precautions," Ms. Benoit said. "He always wanted to get as close to the animals as he could and was disappointed when I held him back."
She said she continues to feel the zoo is a safe place to bring her son.
"The accident was a very unfortunate situation," Ms. Benoit said. "But people shouldn't let the death deter them from enjoying the zoo animals and supporting the zoo's animal preservation efforts."
African painted dogs are an endangered species. Only about 3,000 exist in the wild, mainly in several south African nations, and the Pittsburgh painted dog exhibit is one of 26 zoos in the U.S. where they can be found, according to the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, a national accreditation organization.
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983. First Published November 7, 2012 5:00 AM