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Pittsburgh Zoo attendance declines sharply after fatality

| Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013, 12:10 a.m.
Visitors come to the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium on a warm and sunny Sunday January 13, 2013 through the admissions gate. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Visitors come to the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium on a warm and sunny Sunday January 13, 2013 through the admissions gate. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

Attendance at Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium dropped by the thousands in the two months since a pack of African painted dogs mauled a toddler to death.

Officials at the facility in Highland Park attributed the decline to wintry weather and said it would be difficult to determine whether the mauling kept visitors away.

The zoo closed the afternoon of the tragedy and remained shuttered the next day. Officials said they would not try to boost attendance to make up for those lost days or any lost to snowfall.

“We'll continue on with what we normally do,” zoo spokeswoman Tracy Gray said.

The dogs killed Maddox Derkosh, 2, of Whitehall on Nov. 4 when the boy, on an outing with his mother, fell from an observation deck railing into the exhibit in front of horrified visitors.

Allegheny County officials did not file charges. Zoo officials closed the exhibit and removed its observation deck. They have no immediate plan to put the animals, members of an endangered species, back on display.

Zoo attendance for November and December totaled 39,066, the lowest figure since at least 2008, when 52,252 people visited during those months. The combined attendance is down between 7,800 and 14,877 visitors over comparable figures during the four-year period.

“Weather is one of the major factors that affect our attendance, as (with) any outdoor event,” Gray said. “If it's sunny or bright, people will come, but if it's raining or snowing, it's kind of a deterrent.”

Yet in December 2008, the weather averaged 5 degrees colder than last month, with temperatures averaged 38.1 degrees, the National Weather Service records show. December 2012 was slightly wetter, with 5.53 inches of precipitation compared with 4.7 inches in December 2008.

In November 2008, the average temperature was 40.1 degrees; in November 2012, 39.6 degrees. The weather service recorded precipitation of 0.38 inches in November, compared with 2 inches in November 2008.

Bad or good weather on weekends or holidays can really affect attendance, said Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in Silver Springs, Md. Gray said the zoo closed on Dec. 26 and on Dec. 29, a Saturday, because of snowfall.

“When an unfortunate incident like (the mauling) occurs, we don't generally see any corresponding drop in attendance,” Feldman said. “Community members are very supportive of zoos when these things happen. People don't alter their plans because of something like this, in general.”

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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