Pittsburgh Zoo to reopen, but dogs off limits
The site of Sunday's fatal accident at the Pittsburgh Zoo has been closed.
Relatives identified the child who was killed Sunday as Maddox Derkosh, 2, of Whitehall.
A view of the tilt of railing along the open viewing area at the "Painted Dog Encounter" at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium.
African painted dogs at the Pittsburgh Zoo.
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The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium will reopen today, but the African painted dog exhibit, where 2-year-old Maddox Derkosh from Whitehall was mauled to death Sunday, will remain closed indefinitely.
At an emotional news conference Monday, Barbara Baker, the zoo's president and chief executive officer, said zoo personnel were nearby, responded quickly and followed all of their practiced procedures, but couldn't do anything to help the boy, who had been hoisted onto an observation deck railing by his mother before tumbling 14 feet into the exhibit area containing 11 of the zoo's 14 dogs.
"We had staff within 10 feet of the exhibit," Ms. Baker said, but there was nothing that could be done. "It was too dangerous" for staff to enter the yard where the boy was.
Ms. Baker said the boy fell into the exhibit from the observation area railing and bounced twice on protective netting that extends outward from the base of the railing like a shelf. An Allegheny County medical examiner's review found that the boy was not fatally injured in the fall but bled to death because of the mauling.
Diane Richard, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, said police continued to investigate the incident.
She said it was too early to speculate about possible criminal charges.
From the fence where zoo personnel could access the exhibit, the boy lay about 12 feet away, Ms. Baker said. They used dummy tranquilizers to "spook" the animals because loaded tranquilizer darts are harmful to humans. They did not want to take a chance on further hurting the boy, she said, and she added that the zoo conducts drills regularly for such emergencies and that the staff responded appropriately.
"It was too dangerous to go into the yard, too dangerous to send the staff into harm's way, and we wouldn't ask them to do that," Ms. Baker said.
A keeper was able to call away seven of the 11 dogs, and three more were quickly shooed away from the boy, she said.
A specially trained zoo weapons team got to the exhibit at the same time as Pittsburgh police, who were responding to a 911 call, Ms. Baker said. A Pittsburgh police officer shot one dog that acted aggressively and would not move away from the boy.
None of the remaining 13 painted dogs at the zoo will be euthanized, Ms. Baker said, although they will remain in quarantine for 30 days.
Celebrity wildlife expert Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, said African painted dogs are among the fastest and most efficient predators in Africa.
Mr. Hanna said his observations of the animals feeding in their natural wild habitats led him to believe that the boy's life was over within "milliseconds" of the attack. He likened the speed at which they go after and devour their prey to that of a piranha.
"They are so fast," he said. "You can't imagine."
He said he believes the outcome would have been the same, regardless of whether zoo personnel fired live rounds of tranquilizers -- which can take time to kick in -- or shot live bullets.
"I don't care what weapons they had," he said. "Nothing could have been done."
Mr. Hanna said the boy's death was a "freak thing."
"I know what these people are going through, both the family and the zoo family," he said. "It's beyond gut-wrenching. It's beyond anything anyone can imagine."
Because the African painted dog is difficult to breed and care for in captivity, Mr. Hanna said, Pittsburgh's exhibit is one of just a few in the country.
"The Pittsburgh Zoo is vital to survival of this species, because they have one of the leading programs in the world," he said.
Ms. Baker said no decision had been made about when the painted dog exhibit will reopen. She said the police investigation is continuing and the zoo's internal investigation team was scheduled to meet at 4 p.m. Monday.
The zoo was closed Monday, and none of the dogs was in the exhibit area.
Beginning today, visitors will be allowed to pay their respects at the pavilion where the boy fell. It has been sealed off with a bamboo wall on which zoo staff hung two wreaths of roses.
The zoo was inspected in July and accredited for another five years by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also inspected the zoo in September, mainly for animal care and welfare issues, and found no deficiencies, Ms. Baker said, but she expects it will return for a follow-up inspection now.
Although the zoo and the AZA declined to release the accreditation report, which they described as a "confidential document," both said the report found no problems and specifically did not mention any issues at the African painted dog exhibit or its observation pavilion.
There is no sign in the pavilion warning against putting children on the railing, Ms. Baker said. But the zoo does all it can to ensure the safety of visitors, she said, including a variety of design safeguards that include exhibit railings angled at 45 degrees and slanted away from the dogs' yard.
"Life is full of risks," she said. "We do everything we possibly can to ensure the safety of our visitors and staff. But we do work with wild and dangerous animals. And there is no such thing as a foolproof exhibit."
Ms. Baker said the AZA contacted zoo officials following the accident and asked for an investigation report within 30 days. That deadline could be extended if law enforcement is still investigating.
After reviewing the zoo's incident investigation document and any law enforcement investigation report, the AZA will decide whether it has additional questions or should send an inspection team to the Highland Park facility, spokesman Steve Feldman said.
Zoos can lose accreditation if standards for animal care, visitor safety and security or even financial stability aren't met, but it's rare that a single incident could trigger it.
Zoos can operate without accreditation, but they "take accreditation seriously and if they are found to be lacking certain standards, they move quickly to fix them," Mr. Feldman said, citing as an example the San Francisco Zoo, where a tiger escaped and attacked three men, killing one, on Christmas Day 2007.
He said the AZA inspected that zoo in January 2008 and by the time it held a hearing in March the zoo had made numerous improvements to keep the tigers from escaping and didn't lose accreditation.
"Zoos have safety for children and families as one of their highest priorities," Mr. Feldman said. "About 175 million people visit zoos annually in the United States, and no one I have spoken to can remember anything like this happening to a child at an AZA-accredited zoo."
First Published November 6, 2012 12:00 am