The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium reopened Tuesday, but the African painted dog exhibit, where 2-year-old Maddox Derkosh 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," Baker said, but there was nothing that could be done. "It was too dangerous" for staff to enter the yard where the boy was.
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. A 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, 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.
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 Pittsburgh police officer shot one dog that acted aggressively and would not move away from the boy. Baker said the dogs would remain in quarantine for 30 days.
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, 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.
The pavilion has no sign warning against putting children on the railing, 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.
"We do everything we possibly can to ensure the safety of our visitors and staff," she said. "But we do work with wild and dangerous animals. And there is no such thing as a foolproof exhibit."
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," 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," 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."
(Contact Don Hopey at dhopeypost-gazette.com, Moriah Balingit at mbalingitpost-gazette.com and Taryn Luna at tlunapost-gazette.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)