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Tragedy highlights need for safety at zoos

| Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, 11:58 p.m.

Zoo officials around the country say the tragedy at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is a stark reminder of the need for safe exhibits.

“There's certainly a lot of reflection going on,” said Jon Glesing, spokesman for the Indianapolis Zoo. “Without question, a lot of zoos are going to look at what they do and make sure that everything humanly possible is being taken care of to ensure the safety of the zoo guests and the animal collection.”

Pittsburgh zoo officials said they would evaluate the safety of the African painted dogs exhibit while investigating the death on Sunday of Maddox Derkosh, 2, who fell into the pen.

Thirty-seven zoos in North America have a combined 63 African painted dogs. The Indianapolis Zoo encloses its two dogs in an exhibit protected by glass 8 to 10 feet tall. A wooden fence separates visitors from the glassed-in area, and barbed wire, some electrified, tops the barrier.

“That's for someone who might do something silly like try to get into the enclosure,” Glesing said.

Patrons can see painted dogs at the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago from across a moat or through glass in a faux mud hut.

“No matter what you do, you don't know what events might create a situation,” said Bill Zeigler, senior vice president of collections and animal care at Brookfield.

Brookfield's dog exhibit has a barrier ranging from 48 to 58 inches high and a six-foot-wide flat area with plants. From there, an empty moat of artificial rock separates visitors.

Like other zoos, Brookfield must meet regulations from the Department of Agriculture and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Some zoos also must meet county and state codes, Zeigler said.

The St. Louis Zoo hopes to open an exhibit with four painted dogs in 2014. Zoo spokeswoman Susan Gallagher said a fence at least 11.5 feet high will surround the exhibit. Visitors can see the dogs only through glass in the viewing areas.

The USDA conducts annual unannounced inspections of the Pittsburgh Zoo, said spokesman Dave Sacks. An inspector was traveling to the zoo Monday to check for potential problems with the dog exhibit. If the inspector finds potential violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act, the agency would investigate, Sacks said.

Sacks said facilities can avoid penalties if they correct problems. Penalties can range from warning letters to fines and license revocation.

Sacks said the zoo received two warning letters since 1994. Details from the 1994 violation were unavailable. A letter in 2010 warned the zoo to correct fence problems in a goat and sheep fence and deteriorating electrical boxes in a bear enclosure.

“The zoo doesn't have a history of being a bad actor,” he said.

Bob Bauder and Bill Zlatos are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Bauder can be reached at 412-765-2312 or Zlatos can be reached at 412-320-7828.

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