Painted dogs maul, kill 2-year-old at Pittsburgh zoo
A 2-year-old boy whose mother lifted him onto a railing to see the African painted dogs at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium fell into the exhibit, where the animals attacked and killed him Sunday morning in front of horrified onlookers.
“They were saying, ‘Get away. Stay away!'” zoo visitor Bart DePasquale, 29, of Fox Chapel said in describing a chaotic scene of screaming patrons and zoo personnel trying to scare the 11 dogs away from the boy. “It wasn't one person; it was an entire group of people screaming.
“Eventually the screams were heavily distressed. There was profanity.”
Authorities would not identify the boy or his mother, who Pittsburgh police said is from Pleasant Hills.
This is believed to be the first time an animal killed a visitor in the zoo's 114-year history.
“The mother picked the child up, put him on the railing,” Major Crimes Lt. Kevin Kraus said, describing the moments before the 11:45 a.m. attack. “Almost immediately after that, he lost his balance and fell into the pit.”
Barbara Baker, zoo president and CEO, said the 11 dogs in the exhibit, which are territorial by nature, went into a pack mentality and attacked the boy when he hit the ground. Zoo officials said the boy fell onto netting and then rolled off it and onto the ground, falling a total of 14 feet.
Kraus, speaking at a later news conference, said the boy fell about 11 feet and did not say the boy fell into netting.
“The dogs were doing what the dogs normally do,” Baker said.
Zoo officials said visitors quickly notified staff, and one dog keeper was able to get seven dogs away from the boy.
Another member of the veterinarian staff fired darts to scare the dogs off. Kraus said the darts were not loaded with tranquilizer, because staff were afraid of further injuring the boy with a drugged dart.
The zoo said that “keepers attempted to enter the yard to lure the dogs away, but were unable to reach the child.”
Kraus provided a different account, saying: “No one made an active attempt to enter the pit.”
Workers eventually lured 10 of the dogs away from the boy, but an 11th continued attacking the child. Kraus said two police officers who entered the pit shot and killed the dog.
The dogs were separated within 10 minutes of the boy's falling into the pit, Kraus said.
He described the area where the youngster was standing as a partially enclosed observation deck. The front is open to the dog pit, with a 4-foot railing that has an inclined wooden ledge at the top.
The Pleasant Hills mother visited the zoo with her son, a cousin and the cousin's child. Her husband arrived at the zoo after the incident.
Kraus said police have not been able to talk to the woman, 34, because she and her husband were being treated in a hospital for shock.
Investigators have not determined the exact cause of death, he said. The Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office said the boy's name would not be released until Monday.
After the child fell into the exhibit, the zoo issued a “code red,” indicating an emergency, and locked visitors in buildings for nearly 30 minutes. Officials then evacuated visitors and closed the zoo for the day. It was unclear how many people were in the zoo at the time or when the facility will reopen.
Kraus said several people witnessed the tragedy, but he could not provide an exact number.
Any witnesses who have not been contacted by police should call investigators at 412-323-7161.
Kraus said police have safety concerns regarding the dog exhibit, but he declined to elaborate or to say if anyone committed a crime.
“At this point, it's highly inappropriate to speculate on charges,” the lieutenant said.
The zoo put the surviving dogs back in the exhibit. Baker said the zoo has not made any decisions on the fate of the exhibit or the dogs.
Jim and Kristie Schwartz of Brookline took their daughter, Heather, 5, to the zoo Sunday afternoon for a “mommy, daddy, daughter day” and found the gates closed about 2 p.m.
Jim Schwartz, 45, recalled his father telling him stories of zoo animals escaping but said he has no qualms about taking his kids to the Pittsburgh Zoo in the wake of the boy's death.
“Even though they are safe, zoos still have times where either people do things or animals do things where (people) get in or (animals) get out,” Schwartz said. “It's just like an amusement park. Things happen there, too.”
Zoo officials and city police will investigate the death, Baker said, and staff will evaluate how they responded to the incident.
The exhibit is part of the zoo's African Savanna display.
In May, 150 to 200 zoo patrons were put in lockdown because the 11 dogs sneaked through a gap in a fence and went to the backup yard of their exhibit.
The zoo imposed a “code red” as a precaution, putting visitors inside buildings until the dogs were returned to the main exhibit.
The zoo's first outdoor exhibit, of bears, opened in 1937.
The zoo moved to naturalistic habitats in the 1980s, with the African Savanna, featuring seven major exhibits in an African landscape, opening in 1987. The painted dog exhibit opened in 2006.
Bob Bauder, Bill Zlatos and Bill Vidonic are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Bauder can be reached at 412-765-2312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Zlatos can be reached at 412-320-7828or email@example.com. Vidonic can be reached at 412-380-5621 or firstname.lastname@example.org.