Pittsburgh Zoo closes painted dogs exhibit

Toddler fell, died there in November

The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium will not exhibit the African painted dogs that killed a 2-year-old Whitehall boy in November, and will send them all to other zoos.

Barbara Baker, the zoo's president and chief executive officer, said Wednesday that the decision to end the painted dogs exhibit was made to give the community time to recover from the fatal mauling that occurred Nov. 4 when Maddox Derkosh slipped out of his mother's arms and fell off an observation platform, over a railing, into the exhibit.

The 10 remaining painted dogs -- one was shot by a police officer when it refused to move away from the child's body -- have not been publicly exhibited at the zoo since the mauling.

Barbara Baker: Closing gives city 'time to heal'

The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium has announced the closing of its African painted dogs exhibit, the scene of a fatal mauling last year. (Video by Bob Donaldson; 4/10/2013)

"The main reason for [closing the exhibit] is because we recognize that the family, the zoo family, the Pittsburgh community at large all know we had a tragic accident at the zoo and we need time to heal," Ms. Baker said. "We're all moms and dads, so we all recognize how painful this is."

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, she said, but she declined to release the review report.

"The DA indicated on several occasions that he did not find any evidence this was anything more than a tragic accident and there would be no criminal charges against the zoo," Ms. Baker said. "Our internal report findings were the same, that this was a tragic accident."

Mike Manko, spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., issued a statement acknowledging the office's investigation is closed.

"Our investigation into last year's death of Maddox Derkosh revealed no criminal conduct on behalf of anyone associated with the Pittsburgh Zoo," Mr. Manko said. "Unless the U.S. Department of Agriculture discovers any deficiencies in their final report that would convince us to revisit that position, our investigation will be closed."

The USDA, which 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, said the incident "remains under investigation" and declined to say how long the probe could last.

Ms. Baker said the zoo had filed its report with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums but has had no response or request for a follow-up inspection. The report is considered confidential.

Ms. Baker denied that zoo staff had raised questions about the safety of the painted dogs exhibit observation deck prior to the accident.

"Safety committee notes for the last five years do not mention anything about the painted dog exhibit, and the AZA reports for the last five years show no concerns," she said. "So, to my knowledge, there is not any record of any comments prior to the accident about the exhibit."

Four of the dogs have already been sent to other zoos, Ms. Baker said. Two others will leave soon and the remaining four will leave in the fall. She declined to say which zoos will get the dogs but added that all of the zoos have existing painted dog exhibits.

The zoo has also removed the observation deck the boy fell from and re-landscaped the painted dog exhibit area, Ms. Baker said. But it hasn't put any new animals in that space.

"We have a committee looking into that. It might be cheetahs again," she said. "That space started out as a cheetah valley."

She left open the possibility that a new painted dog exhibit could eventually become part of the zoo's next major project, "Top of the World Exhibit," that will include amphibians, reptiles and mammals that are threatened or endangered. The painted dogs are endangered in southern Africa and number about 3,000 in the wild, according to the Wildlife Conservation Network.

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Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983. First Published April 10, 2013 5:15 PM


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