Pittsburgh Zoo will permanently close African painted dogs exhibit

| Wednesday, April 10, 2013, 1:48 p.m.

The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium has or will move to other zoos the African painted dogs that fatally mauled a 2-year-old boy last fall.

The Highland Park zoo has moved four of the dogs and will move the remaining six soon, Barbara Baker, the zoo's president and CEO, told the Tribune-Review on Wednesday.

Baker said the zoo's policy is not to reveal where it sends animals, but the zoos receiving the dogs have other African painted dogs, she confirmed. Fewer than 3,000 of them remain in the wild, making them an endangered species.

Maddox Derkosh of Whitehall died Nov. 4 after his mother, Elizabeth Derkosh, lifted him onto a railing to get a better look at the animals. The boy fell 14 feet onto a mesh net and bounced into the pen. Zookeepers rushed to save him, but it was too dangerous for them to enter the yard. One especially aggressive dog was fatally shot.

An autopsy report revealed Maddox survived the fall but had no chance against the pack of dogs and bled to death. It was the first visitor death in the zoo's 114-year history.

“We really want to give the Pittsburgh community an opportunity to heal,” Baker said. “This particular accident affected us all.”

The zoo placed the dogs in quarantine for 30 days, closed the exhibit and has since removed the observation deck from which Maddox fell.

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. has said that neither the zoo nor Elizabeth Derkosh will face criminal charges. The Derkosh family couldn't be reached for comment.

“Our investigation into last year's death of Maddox Derkosh revealed no criminal conduct on behalf of anyone associated with the Pittsburgh Zoo,” said Zappala's spokesman Mike Manko. “Unless the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) discovers any deficiencies in their final report that would convince us to revisit that position, our investigation will be closed.”

Representatives for the USDA and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit organization that accredits zoos and aquariums, did not return calls.

A USDA spokesman in November said investigators were looking for violations of the Animal Welfare Act, which governs the treatment of animals in public exhibits. The spokesman at the time said there was no timeline for the investigation, and any violations would be made public.

Baker said the painted dog exhibit has been inspected 35 times since the city built it as a cheetah enclosure in 1992. On Wednesday, Baker said the zoo is considering reopening the exhibit to use once again as a cheetah enclosure.

For now, however, the zoo is hoping to build on last year's popularity when nearly 1 million people visited — the fourth-highest total in the zoo's history.

“Part of the healing process,” Baker said, “is getting back to normal as much as we can.”

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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