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Cheetah now calls home the African painted dog exhibit at Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium

| Friday, July 12, 2013, 11:30 p.m.
Conor Ralph
A boy leans against the protective glass to gain a better look at a cheetah inside the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium Friday, July 12. The new exhibit replaces the zoo’s African painted dogs exhibit after a Nov. 4 incident where a 2-year-old boy was fatally mauled after he fell into their pen.

Children squealed on Friday for the cheetah at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium to show herself, while parents whispered about the enclosure's former inhabitants.

Even though the cheetah remained hidden in the long grass for most of the afternoon, the exhibit attracted many who spoke of the Nov. 4 accident in which the zoo's African painted dogs fatally mauled a little boy when he fell into their pen.

“I thought they were going to close it for good,” said Pamela Faber, 37, of Shaler, who took her son Dylan, 4, and daughter Rebecca, 7, to the zoo for the day. “It's so tragic what happened, and now they have another dangerous animal in there.”

Maddox Derkosh, 2, of Whitehall died after his mother, Elizabeth Derkosh, lifted him onto a railing for a better look at the animals. The boy fell 14 feet from the observation deck 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. It was the first visitor death in the zoo's 114-year history.

The zoo removed the observation deck from which Maddox fell and replaced it with a tall fence and shrubbery running from a food shack in the nearby food court to the African Overlook, where visitors can view the cheetah through a glass panel.

The zoo quietly replaced the dogs early last month, said spokeswoman Jaime Szoszorek. The city originally built the enclosure for cheetahs in 1992.

Ten dogs were moved to other zoos across the country, Barbara Baker, the zoo's president and CEO, told the Tribune-Review in April. Fewer than 3,000 of them remain in the wild, making them an endangered species.

Elizabeth Derkosh and her husband, Jason, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in May, claiming zoo administrators knew the observation deck was dangerous and had ample warning that parents routinely lifted children onto the rail. Their Philadelphia-based attorneys, Robert Mongeluzzi and Andrew Duffy, did not return calls seeking comment.

Szoszorek refused to answer additional questions, citing the “pending litigation,” while representatives for the Department of Agriculture and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit organization that accredits zoos and aquariums, did not return calls.

A USDA spokesman last year 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.

Mike Dillon, 41, of Uniontown said he specifically sought out the enclosure in his first trip to the zoo since last summer to see the changes.

“It seems like they saw the problem and have fixed it,” Dillon said.

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.

Louise Gephart, 71, of Murrysville applauded the zoo for the changes it's made.

“I definitely think it's safer now,” she said. “But I feel like it's a little too soon to have something else in there.”

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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