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Attorneys: Pittsburgh Zoo warned 4 times about dog exhibit before fatal mauling

| Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, 1:30 p.m.
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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Maddox Derkosh, 2, of Whitehall was killed Nov. 4, 2012, when he fell into the African painted dogs exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

Safety monitors at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium warned superiors multiple times that people were dangling children into the African painted dogs exhibit years before the animals fatally mauled a toddler who fell in last November, attorneys for the victim's family say.

Legal experts said the claims could be a turning point in a Whitehall couple's wrongful-death case against the Highland Park facility, increasing its liability because of its alleged inaction.

“It shows actual knowledge of the danger and a knowing failure to take corrective action,” said Jon Perry, an independent observer and attorney at the Downtown firm Rosen Louik & Perry.

He called the early warnings “as close to a smoking gun as you can find.”

Zoo attorney Dennis J. Mulvihill could not be reached, and spokeswoman Tracy Gray would not answer questions on Wednesday. She released a statement via email.

“The filing is part of the continuing legal process,” the statement reads. “The Pittsburgh Zoo has a very active safety committee. The committee is state-certified and reviews all areas of the park. After careful inspection, it was determined that the exhibit continuously exceeded the safety requirements mandated by the USDA and (the Association of Zoos and Aquariums),” which inspect and review the facility.

The zoo's safety committee warned executives about the security of the enclosure at least four times in 2006 and 2007, according to the filing this week in Allegheny County Court.

Zoo officials made no attempts to change the exhibit between then and Nov. 4, when Maddox Derkosh, 2, fell 14 feet from his mother's arms into the dog pen and died when he was mauled, attorneys for Maddox's parents wrote.

Committee members met monthly to discuss safety-related issues and reported concerns to high-ranking zoo executives including Dr. Barbara Baker, the zoo's president and CEO, and Amos Morris, the former curator of mammals, according to the Derkosh filing. Family attorney Robert J. Mongeluzzi was unavailable for comment.

On Aug. 16, 2006, the committee reported that the “wild dog exhibit has one side of the exhibit that is open, and a visitor was seen dangling a child over the exhibit through the opening,” meeting minutes show.

On Feb. 2, 2007, the committee reported, “A docent saw a person holding a child through the open side of the wild-dog exhibit deck trying to bring the dogs over. A pane of Plexiglas may have to be installed. A lot of things are dropped in the exhibit and cannot be retrieved because the dogs are unwilling to leave exhibit. Amos will be asked about his advice on this matter.”

On May 31 of the same year, the committee reported, “Guests are dangling children over the rail at the wild-dog exhibit.”

A month later, the committee reported “children hanging over ledge” and recommended “extra consideration for housing wild dogs could be considered when requesting new funding.”

Internal safety committees are common at U.S. zoos, which rely on the monitors to identify problems such as damaged cages and missing signs, said Mitchel Kalmanson, president of the Lester Kalmanson Agency in Maitland, Fla. His agency specializes in insuring wild animals and zoos.

Kalmanson said ignoring a safety committee's warnings can become a critical problem for a zoo.

“Yes, it's a liability. Yes, it's negligence,” he said. “And, yes, it's a major concern.”

Still, a safety committee might find dozens of problem areas, said R. Michael Roberts, a professor of animal science at the University of Missouri.

“It isn't possible to deal with them all at one time. They have to be prioritized or even triaged at times,” said Roberts, who helped lead a 2003 investigation into animal deaths at the National Zoo in Washington.

Maddox's parents, Elizabeth and Jason Derkosh, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in May alleging the zoo “blatantly ignored” a warning from an employee about the potential danger the dog exhibit posed to youngsters hoisted by their parents at the exhibit's railing. The Derkosh family did not return calls for comment.

“If you build a ledge, people will put things on it. I don't care if it's Niagara Falls or the wild dogs at the Pittsburgh Zoo,” said Gary J. Ogg, a Downtown-based attorney following the case.

In their complaint, the Derkoshes acknowledged that Elizabeth Derkosh lifted her son to get a better look when the boy lurched forward and fell onto a mesh net and bounced into the pen.

Zookeepers rushed to save the boy, but it was too dangerous for them to enter the yard. An autopsy report revealed Maddox survived the fall but had no chance against the 11 dogs and bled to death. His was the first visitor death in the zoo's 115-year history.

Last month, attorneys for the zoo said Elizabeth Derkosh, 34, was at fault for lifting her son when she knew he could fall.

The Department of Agriculture inspected the exhibit 35 times since it opened in 2006, zoo officials have said. Inspectors did not raise concerns about the enclosure during their visits. A USDA investigation into whether zoo conditions contributed to Maddox's death is continuing, department spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said.

The zoo has closed the dog exhibit and the observation deck. In June, it installed a new exhibit featuring a cheetah.

Adam Brandolph and Adam Smeltz are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Brandolph at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com. Reach Smeltz at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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