Witnesses to the mauling of a 2-year-old at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium earlier this month told investigators that it appeared the little boy thought there was Plexiglas in front of him at the African painted dog exhibit when he lunged forward with his hands to the sides of his face as if to peer through it.
Instead, Maddox Derkosh toppled over the railing.
"It was almost like a lunging motion, like he was going to go up against a hard object and stop," said District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.
A number of visitors and the boy's mother, Elizabeth Derkosh, attempted to jump over the railing to go to his aid, but they were stopped by other spectators, Mr. Zappala said.
Ms. Derkosh, who had been holding Maddox on the railing at the time, will not face criminal charges.
"I've heard an explanation of how the child fell, and it's a tragic accident," Mr. Zappala said.
He held a media briefing Wednesday to announce a review of the incident being conducted by his office, Pittsburgh homicide detectives and the United States Department of Agriculture.
"We're going to try to ensure that this never occurs again," he said.
The review will be a coordinated effort among the agencies, and will include an examination of the zoo's physical plant and safety and security. The zoo is cooperating with the review.
On Nov. 4, Maddox was killed after falling into the popular painted dog exhibit. Eleven dogs attacked him as a pack.
Barbara Baker, the zoo's president and chief executive officer, said there was a keeper in the dogs' building at the time of the attack.
He immediately went to the entrance of the exhibit's backup holding area to call the animals in. The keeper was able to secure seven of them, she said. By that time, other handlers had arrived, too, and were able to get three others.
A police officer who arrived afterward shot one dog that was acting aggressively.
"The employees there, and everybody involved responded very quickly and did all they could," Ms. Baker said.
Mr. Zappala believed the response by police officers was delayed, although he couldn't give specifics of the timeline.
"Pittsburgh police couldn't get in as quickly as they wanted, and that will be borne out by the 911 tape."
Another concern, he said, was that a tranquilizer weapon brought in to try to stop the dogs did not have a dart loaded with medicine in it.
Still, he said, "That would not have saved the child."
Mr. Zappala said the review, which just began, will last several weeks. He plans to visit the zoo in coming days.
Among the issues to be reviewed, he said, are response protocols -- such as what Pittsburgh officers need in responding to a call at the zoo and where their access should be.
He mentioned the idea of having universal locks on all of the animal exhibits that would allow immediate access in an emergency.
The painted dog exhibit, which remains closed indefinitely, includes an observation deck that has Plexiglas on two sides, but is open in the middle with a 4-foot slanted railing. There is a mesh shelf several feet below, and Maddox bounced off that into the enclosure.
Ms. Baker said the original exhibit was constructed in 1992 by the city of Pittsburgh to be used for viewing cheetahs. She did not know why two sides were enclosed but one was not.
The USDA does at least one annual inspection at the zoo under the Animal Welfare Act, Ms. Baker said, and has already been at the zoo in response to this incident.
Dave Sacks, a spokesman for the USDA, said the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will inspect the zoo to look for any possible violations of the Animal Welfare Act that may have contributed to the incident.
Part of that investigation will also ensure there are proper barriers between dangerous animals and the public.
If violations are found, and penalties are to be imposed, Mr. Sacks said, those penalties can include an official warning letter, fines, a suspension of the facility's license to exhibit animals and a permanent revocation of that license.
While the USDA will investigate the physical plant and security schemes at the zoo, law enforcement will determine if there was any criminal negligence on the part of the zoo or employees that could result in charges, Mr. Zappala said.
Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2620. First Published November 28, 2012 8:00 PM