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Pittsburgh Zoo will remove the observation deck at the African painted dogs exhibit

The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium removed the observation deck at the African painted dogs exhibit “out of respect for the community” and the family of the 2-year-old who was fatally mauled when he fell from the platform into the yard below.

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By Adam Brandolph and Margaret Harding
Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, 12:34 p.m.
 

The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium will remove the observation deck at the African painted dogs exhibit “out of respect for the community” and the family of the boy who was fatally mauled when he fell from the platform into the animals' yard, the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office said on Thursday.

Barbara Baker, president and CEO of the zoo, told District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. about the decision during a two-hour tour of the exhibit with zoo officials and the Pittsburgh police officers who responded on Nov. 4, said Mike Manko, a spokesman for the district attorney's office, which is investigating the death of Maddox Derkosh, 2, of Whitehall.

Manko called the meeting on Thursday “a productive step toward ensuring that this tragedy will not reoccur.” Neither Baker nor Zappala would comment.

Zoo spokeswoman Tracy Gray said there is no time line for the removal of the deck. She declined further comment.

Downtown personal injury lawyer Neil R. Rosen said the removal of the platform does not mean the zoo is admitting any negligence.

“What the rules of evidence say is that if after an accident you decide to fix something, it is not admissible in court as an admission of liability, because otherwise, it would discourage people from fixing an environment that could injure someone at a later point in time,” said Rosen, who is not involved in the investigation.

Brad Phillips, president of New York-based public relations firm Phillips Media Relations, said the decision to remove the observation deck is a smart move by the zoo.

“Whether they remove it because they think it's an actual danger or merely out of respect for the deep hurt in the community, either way it seems like the right thing to do,” Phillips said.

Zappala said last week he was investigating whether the zoo was negligent in the death. Police on Thursday turned over their findings to Zappala's office, Lt. Kevin Kraus said.

A review by the U.S. Department of Agriculture will determine whether the zoo violated the Animal Welfare Act, which governs the treatment of animals in exhibits, a spokesman said. There is no time line for the investigation, although any violations found will be made public, he said.

Zoo officials would not say what they would put in place of the platform, nor what they plan to do with the exhibit. The dogs were placed in quarantine, and zoo officials have said there are no immediate plans to put the animals, which are an endangered species, back on display.

“The zoo is cooperating fully with the investigation,” Gray said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family.”

In times of crisis, an organization generally is judged by the community based on how well it treats the victim, Phillips said.

“They very well probably have to do more than just this,” he said. “But it certainly is a step that is aligning their actions with the concerns of the community, which is always necessary in a crisis.”

Last week, Zappala said Elizabeth Derkosh, 33, of Whitehall was holding her son Maddox on a railing atop the observation deck of the outdoor exhibit when the child leaned forward to get a better look and fell about 14 feet. Zappala said Elizabeth Derkosh will not face criminal charges.

Relatives of Maddox did not return calls, and an attorney representing Elizabeth Derkosh said the family asked him not to comment.

Adam Brandolph and Margaret Harding are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Brandolph can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com. Harding can be reached at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com.

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