Police, neighbors identify Pittsburgh zoo mauling victim

| Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, 2:02 p.m.

The lasting image of Maddox Derkosh's death in a pit of African painted dogs evokes nightmares and brought emotional responses Monday from around the world.

On the quiet, winding road in Whitehall where Maddox lived, neighbors and friends tried to focus on the image of a cute little boy with red glasses, pulled in a red wagon by his doting parents, Jason and Elizabeth Derkosh.

“They went nowhere without Maddox,” said next-door neighbor Rachel Majcher, 33, a high school classmate of Elizabeth Derkosh. “I cannot imagine the dark cloud that is following them.”

Relatives gathered at the Derkoshes' Highgrove Road home declined comment. Many neighbors on the suburban street with manicured lawns said they were too distraught to speak at length.

“I can't imagine as a mom myself what a tragedy that would be,” Majcher said. “Your heart stops when your kid skins a knee.”

Police said Elizabeth Derkosh, 33, lifted up Maddox, 2, to the top of a 4-foot fence to see into the painted dogs exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium on Sunday, and the boy fell 14 feet into the enclosure. The 11 dogs, which are territorial by nature, went into a pack mentality and attacked the boy when he hit the ground, zoo CEO Barbara Baker said.

He survived the fall and the dogs killed him, according to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office.

“It was an uncontrollable situation for zookeepers,” Baker said on Monday during her second news conference on the death. “It happened literally in seconds. Once the child was in the exhibit there wasn't anything anyone could do.”

She described the first fatality involving a visitor in the Highland Park facility's 114-year history as the zoo's “worst nightmare.”

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to that family,” said an emotional Baker, who paused several times.

The zoo will reopen Tuesday “so visitors can pay their respects,” Baker said. People placed teddy bears at the zoo entrance, Baker said, and the zoo received condolences from as far away as the Netherlands.

Several thousand people responded to the tragedy on the zoo's Facebook page with a mix of sorrow, criticism of the zoo and the boy's parents, and heated exchanges about who was to blame.

Spokeswoman Tracy Gray said the zoo's social media manager was monitoring the posts, but declined to comment.

The dogs will remain quarantined for 30 days, and the observation deck will close until at least spring while officials review its safety.

The rail top tilts in toward the observation deck and is designed to prevent a child from falling into the exhibit, Baker said. She said staff discourages visitors from placing children on the rail, but the exhibit features no warning signs.

Maddox fell onto netting designed to catch litter and then rolled onto the ground. Workers lured 10 dogs away from the boy, but an 11th ignored the workers and acted aggressively. Workers fired empty tranquilizer darts, but feared hitting the child, Baker said.

Police Officers Colby Neidig and Derek Williams entered the pit and fatally shot the dog with zoo approval, officials said. Police officials would not allow them to speak, police spokeswoman Diane Richard said.

Police estimated the entire incident lasted about 10 minutes.

Zoo keepers and staff trained to respond in emergencies were within 10 feet of the exhibit and arrived in seconds after receiving radio alerts. They could do nothing to help, Baker said.

“Life is full of risks,” she said. “We recognize we work with wild animals, dangerous animals. There's no such thing as a fail-safe exhibit.”

Police and the Department of Agriculture, which licenses zoos, are investigating, and Baker said zoo personnel would begin an internal investigation.

Mike Manko, spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., said the office has not determined whether it will file charges against Elizabeth Derkosh.

The Derkoshes married in October 2008. Jason Derkosh works for architectural and engineering firm L.R. Kimball. Employees there declined comment.

The family moved into the neighborhood less than a year ago, and Majcher said she was surprised to recognize her new neighbor.

Elizabeth Derkosh grew up in the South Hills and attended St. Bernard School in Mt. Lebanon and Keystone Oaks High School, Majcher said.

Majcher's children, ages 4 and 6, would yell Maddox's name whenever they saw the boy in the backyard. She said many of the houses on the family-friendly street don't have fences, so it's common to see children running through backyards playing together.

“The hardest part is going to be to explain to my kids that their playmate is no longer here,” Majcher said. “His life will be celebrated.”

Majcher said her father saw Maddox excitedly trick-or-treating in a Superman costume.

“You'd always see him on his little John Deere, zooming around,” Majcher said. “He was just a happy 2-year-old.”

William Slater II Funeral Service in Scott is handling the funeral arrangements.

Staff writers Stephanie Hacke, Laura Van Wert, Adam Smeltz and Michael Hasch contributed to this report. Margaret Harding and Bob Bauder are staff writers for Trib Total Media.

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