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Pittsburgh zoo fatality puts facilities elsewhere 'on alert'

| Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012, 12:22 a.m.

Visitors at the Los Angeles Zoo can't encounter an African painted dog without a serious climb.

A moat and at least two rings of fences separate the public there from the endangered carnivores, the same species that killed a Whitehall toddler on Nov. 4 at Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

At the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, two of three viewing areas for painted dogs keep visitors behind glass. The third — an open overlook area — features an outer wall, a roughly 3-foot gap and an inner cantilevered wall to secure the wildlife.

“They can be aggressive just like lions, tigers and bears can be,” said Rick Dietz, vice president and general curator at the Audubon Zoo. “They do have a tendency to have a pack mentality when they're together” and feeding.

Zookeepers who oversee some of the 63 painted dogs at 37 zoos nationwide would not criticize the Pittsburgh Zoo's exhibit, where Maddox Derkosh, 2, tumbled from the railing of an observation deck and into the enclosure. Experts said the zoo, accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, looked generally well designed and prepared.

Yet, zoo management experts say, Maddox's death might bring changes at zoos, which have moved to shed traditional cages and adopt more-natural, open-space designs, some of which bring visitors face-to-face with wild animals.

“It will — it does — affect every single zoo. ... It puts everybody on the alert,” said Richard J. Snider, a zoology professor at Michigan State University. “I'm sure there are already sketches being made here and there to prevent this.”

At least one person who witnessed the death says the zoo should have made the exhibit safer. District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said his investigation will include a review of safety procedures at the Highland Park zoo.

“One thing is for sure, (the safety) situation has to change,” he said.

Zoo officials referred questions about exhibit design to the AZA.

“This type of exhibit is fairly common,” said association spokesman Steve Feldman. He said the set-up passed muster during accreditation reviews.

The AZA accreditation commission will comb through the design details again after the zoo files an incident report.

“These are safe places for children and families,” he said. “People should know they're safe going to an accredited zoo.”

Dietz said the dog exhibit in Pittsburgh, similar to some exhibits in other cities, “proved to be successful for many years.”

“I think the exhibit was designed appropriately,” he said. “At some point, the guests need to use common sense and not put themselves in danger.”

‘It comes back to design'

Eleven dogs attacked Maddox after the youngster fell from atop a railing, where police say his mother, Elizabeth Derkosh, 33, had lifted him. He fell about 14 feet, bouncing off a mesh barrier that zoo officials said is for catching debris from the observation deck. It was the zoo's first visitor death from an animal since it opened in 1898.

The zoo shuttered the exhibit while it quarantines the dogs.

The Derkoshes, who buried Maddox on Friday, declined to comment.

Police said they are still looking to interview the family and zoo officials.

Joshua Bloom, 41, of Fox Chapel, who witnessed the attack with his two young children, isn't so convinced of the exhibit's safety. He called its design “grossly negligent.”

“There shouldn't be any direct access,” said Bloom, a lawyer. Netting under the deck gave people a false sense of security, and many parents hold their children up to see what the kids think are “cute doggies,” he said.

“This was inevitable,” Bloom said. “It really, really makes the trauma worse for me. This was going to happen to a family. This could happen to the best parents.”

Zoo CEO Barbara Baker said last week the railing atop the observation deck was designed so that someone on top of it would fall back into the deck, away from the exhibit.

Bloom recalled “screaming so loud, I would imagine you could hear us from miles away. People were yelling, and no one was coming. No one was there.”

Bloom said he ran to find help from the zoo. He saw a worker at the cafeteria, but “he didn't know how to react, what to do.”

At least five minutes passed, Bloom estimated, before he heard employees blowing whistles. At that point, he and another father were warning parents near a walkway to turn around and leave.

“I just could not believe this was happening, and there was nobody from the zoo to respond,” Bloom said. “They were not ready for this.”

Zoo spokeswoman Tracy Gray said a zookeeper who was 10 feet away immediately responded by calling coworkers for help. Another keeper in the painted-dog building called for the dogs to get them inside, she said. She declined further comment.

Zoo leaders said a worker got seven of the dogs into the building and another keeper brought three in. At some point, they said, workers fired empty tranquilizer darts at the remaining dog that would not leave Maddox alone.

Police officers fatally shot the remaining dog about 10 minutes after the attack began.

Police are investigating witness reports that employees initially threw rakes to try to scare the dogs away.

“African wild dogs are almost the shark of the carnivore world,” Snider said. “They're efficient; they're fast; they hunt as a cooperative pack. What are you going to do — put a zookeeper in there with a rake and say, ‘Fend them off?' Hell no. That zookeeper would be dead meat, too.”

In the wild, the dogs hunt in packs and can chase antelope and other prey at speeds up to 35 mph.

Snider said he thinks the zoo “acted in a professional way” and had good enclosures.

“Part of it comes back to design,” but there's “also the human-fallibility part,” Snider said. “Humans, in their eagerness, will sometimes forget common safety. It's a human flaw.”

Safety questions

The painted dogs have been an attraction at the Pittsburgh Zoo since 2006.

Most other carnivores at the zoo appear more removed from the public, some behind steep gullies, thick glass or fencing.

Feldman said exhibit planners aim to blend animal welfare with visitor safety and up-close, “inspirational experiences with animals.”

The Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, Mich., is looking to add a Plexiglas barrier in a penguin enclosure, a direct result of the Pittsburgh Zoo attack, Snider said. He said the price could reach five figures.

“We're trying to anticipate human error,” said Snider, who is a zoo board member in Lansing. “It's not going to be cheap.”

Zoo officials outside Pennsylvania said contemporary, more-open enclosures can be just as safe as older-style animal cages of concrete and bars. They pointed to human error in rare zoo tragedies.

“You can design an animal exhibit in many different ways, but you can't design it to keep people from acting in a way that's not common sense,” Dietz said. “There's a point where you can't put up glass walls along every bridge that crosses a body of water to keep people from jumping over.”

Still, the Los Angeles Zoo has tried to incorporate multiple barriers “so if the public gets past one, they can't get into another,” said mammal curator Jennie Becker.

“Of course, you have to think about” incidents like the Pittsburgh attack and perhaps reevaluate barrier systems, she said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to review enclosure designs and other logistics in its investigation at the Pittsburgh Zoo. It isn't clear how long the investigation may run, department spokesman Dave Sacks said.

He said the USDA will check for violations of the Animal Welfare Act and whether zoo conditions contributed to the attack.

“We look to see if there were proper safety barriers between animals and the paying public,” Sacks said.

Staff writer Adam Brandolph contributed to this report. Adam Smeltz and Margaret Harding are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Smeltz can be reached at 412-380-5676 or Harding can be reached at 412-380-8519 or

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