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Insurers take another look at zoo liability policies after deaths

| Monday, Nov. 19, 2012, 12:20 a.m.

Insurers might become more cautious about selling liability policies that cover predator exhibits since exotic dogs mauled a toddler at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, risk analysts warn.

The Nov. 4 fatality marked the latest in several high-profile tragedies at U.S. zoos, including tiger attacks in 2006 and 2007 at the San Francisco Zoo and an apparent suicide attempt in September at a Bronx Zoo tiger enclosure.

“I think the (zoo insurance) rates will go up” because of those and similar incidents, said Mitchel Kalmanson, president of the Lester Kalmanson Agency in Maitland, Fla. The agency, started in the 1950s, specializes in insuring wild animals and zoos.

Pittsburgh Zoo President and CEO Barbara Baker declined to discuss the zoo's liability coverage, calling it a legal matter. Kalmanson said primary liability coverage might cost the nonprofit organization $15,000 to $35,000 a year and is likely to increase.

He said the zoo “does a great job” with animal welfare. But the African painted dogs that mauled Maddox Derkosh, 2, of Whitehall are “nasty critters” and warranted stronger barriers from the public, Kalmanson said.

He said he ranks the dogs with hyenas and “even the tigers” in riskiness.

“They're wild animals; they're an exotic animal by nature. They are not a pet.”

Kalmanson said that if he had insured the Pittsburgh zoo, he would have demanded better security at the painted-dog exhibit or — in lieu of that — an inflated deductible.

Maddox fell 14 feet from the railing of an observation deck and into the dog enclosure. Pittsburgh police report his mother, Elizabeth Derkosh, 33, had lifted him onto the railing.

The boy bounced off a mesh barrier during his descent, although zoo officials said the mesh is meant only to catch debris from the deck. Maddox's death, ruled a result of the dog attack, was the first visitor fatality from an animal in the zoo's 114-year history.

The zoo has closed the dog exhibit for the time being and quarantined the dogs for 30 days.

Baker said the zoo will decide the future of the exhibit — and the dogs — in the coming months.

“We're not making any major decisions right now,” said Baker, who called safety “our top priority.”

“This is an incredibly sad time for the zoo family,” she said. “Of course, our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the child.”

Baker said various agencies have conducted more than 35 inspections at the Pittsburgh Zoo, including five accreditation inspections by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, since the dog exhibit was built in 1992. First used as a cheetah enclosure, it became a painted-dog habitat in 2006.

Baker said she knows of no earlier safety or security concerns with the exhibit. “We would have addressed them immediately,” she said.

The enclosure style is similar to exhibit set-ups in other zoos and has proven effective for years, according to zoo officials in other cities.

The Derkoshes, who could not be reached for comment, have two years to sue the zoo in state court. They had not filed any litigation as of Friday.

Civil action has materialized in other zoo incidents, including in San Francisco. There, a lawsuit stemming from the mauling death of a San Jose, Calif., teenager ended in a payout from the zoo's insurance carrier, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Negligence becomes the central question in such litigation, said Virginia Commonwealth University professor Etti Baranoff.

“In general, when there is negligence, there are liability lawsuits,” said Baranoff, who specializes in risk management. “At this point, you don't know if the family is going to do anything.”

Still, the Pittsburgh Zoo “better have a lot of insurance because they're going to need it,” said Gary Ogg, a Downtown attorney who has represented at least two civil claimants in unrelated cases against the zoo.

He said the zoo is “well insured, as they should be.”

“There's no question they have liability coverage for every incident like this,” Ogg said of the dog attack. “This was foreseeable and preventable. You can't stress that enough.”

The case might push some insurers to avoid liability coverage for zoos with painted dogs, said Martin Grace, a risk-management and insurance professor at Georgia State University. Thirty-six other U.S. zoos have exhibits of painted dogs.

“But a zoo is a zoo, and you need a wide variety” of wildlife, Grace said. He and other industry observers said insurers who maintain coverage for painted dogs likely will put a new emphasis on physical safeguards.

And if investigators tie the Pittsburgh death to “a lack of safety or quality control and maintenance of zoo infrastructure,” the zoo could find it tougher and more expensive to keep liability coverage, Grace said.

“It causes insurers to become more critical about what they've done in the past,” he said.

That happened several years ago after the San Francisco Zoo tiger attacks, said insurance agent Cole Schlack, whose employer, CBI Insurance Agency in Eden, Utah, covers some zoos.

Some carriers weighed whether to cancel policies with zoos housing tigers, Schlack said, but ultimately kept covering the tiger exhibits.

“I don't foresee any carrier saying, ‘We're going to raise rates on you if you have painted dogs,' ” Schlack said.

Insurers will rely heavily on the industry accreditation agency, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, to look into the dog attack and decide whether to adjust accreditation standards, said insurance executive Lori L. Shaw.

“Underwriters rely upon the expertise and industry standards set by accreditation agencies such as the AZA,” said Shaw, executive director at Aon Risk Solutions in Charlotte, N.C.

The AZA reaccredited the Pittsburgh zoo for five years in September. The association did not immediately respond to insurance-related questions last week.

An AZA accreditation commission will revisit the Pittsburgh dog-exhibit design after the zoo files an incident report, association spokesman Steve Feldman has said. The zoo's report is due by Dec. 4.

“You can't take away all the risks from a zoo, or it's not any fun to go,” Schlack said. “It's important to have some connection and not just have (wildlife) in cages, where there's no interaction at all.”

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or

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