The zoo tragedy: Other hazards must be identified and addressed

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The very nature of a modern zoo requires a delicate balancing act.

In the interest of conservation, zoos provide suitable habitats for creatures that are endangered or threatened in the wild. That mission is served best when the animals' exhibits allow people to experience the wonders of the species firsthand, so they become advocates for the animal kingdom.

But safety always must override preservation and education, and on Sunday, the Pittsburgh zoo failed to provide it in sufficient measure. Two-year-old Maddox Derkosh of Whitehall fell from his mother's arms as she held him aloft to view an enclosure that contained 11 African painted dogs. The boy dropped into the exhibit where, tragically, he was mauled to death.

Such horror is the stuff of nightmares, whether viewed by a parent, friend, passerby or zoo professional.

Sadly, the 20-20 vision of hindsight shows us now that the open access from the viewing platform to the painted dog exhibit below never should have been a feature at the zoo, no matter how unlikely the prospect that someone could have fallen, as Maddox did.

The temptation to get the clearest view was too great. Who among us hasn't lifted a child, confident of our ability to hold on, to offer a better look at something in the distance? Now, who among us will never do so again without thinking of little Maddox and his mother, understanding her sorrow and praying she has the strength and support to overcome the unthinkable?

For the Derkosh family, we only can offer condolences on a horrendous loss. But the zoo must provide more than that.

A well-respected facility, the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium recently won renewal of its accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and passed a review by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But its professional staff and the outside evaluators did not anticipate the danger posed by the platform, which is enclosed by fencing on one side but not the other. The mistake was not the dogs' fault, and they should not be punished for behaving according to their instincts.

The Pittsburgh zoo already provides plenty of examples of how visitors can encounter fierce animals without risk. For example, a thick glass pane allows patrons to watch snow leopards up close but without fear; elsewhere in the park, deep moats prevent lions from reaching visitors on the other side.

Human nature ensures that occasionally a visitor, fueled by alcohol or bravado, will try to access a zoo exhibit containing dangerous animals. For this kind of situation, foolproof may be an impossible standard, but on Sunday the zoo did not meet even a lesser standard, one that recognizes the extra layer of protection necessary in a place that is a magnet for families with young, unpredictable children.

Frankly, we're surprised and disappointed that the zoo already has reopened to the public, although at least the painted dogs exhibit is closed for now and its occupants in quarantine. More time should have been taken by zoo staff to try to identify other potential hazards.

In addition to several investigations that are now unfolding into Sunday's tragedy, a complete re-evaluation of safety features at the zoo is necessary, given the danger that was unforeseen at the painted dog exhibit.

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