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Zoo, feds reach settlement over mauling by African dogs

| Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, 4:42 p.m.
A makeshift memorial Thursday, November 8, 2012 for the child who was mauled to death by the African painted dogs at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.
A makeshift memorial Thursday, November 8, 2012 for the child who was mauled to death by the African painted dogs at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium has come to a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to close that agency's review of the 2012 mauling death of a toddler at the African painted dogs exhibit.

Zoo officials wrote in a brief email on Thursday that they paid $4,550 to the USDA, stressing that the federal agency agreed that neither the financial settlement nor the zoo's waiver of its right to a hearing would be construed as an admission of liability by the organization.

USDA officials in Washington could not be reached for comment.

Zoo CEO Barbara Baker said the zoo will continue to work with the department and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a national accrediting organization, to ensure that its exhibits meet and exceed those agencies' standards.

“It is important to us that we are able to take this step to move forward in order for everyone to heal,” Baker said in a news release, adding that “safety is always a top priority.”

In the zoo's statement, Rick Kalson, chair of the zoo's board of directors, said board members donated money for the USDA settlement to demonstrate their support for the facility and its staff.

Zoo officials did not respond to a request for additional comment. The department is responsible for enforcing the federal Animal Welfare Act, which governs the treatment of animals exhibited in zoos.

Maddox Derkosh was 2 on Nov. 4, 2012, when he slipped from his mother's grasp and fell into an exhibit of African painted dogs at the zoo. He survived the 14-foot fall but not a mauling by 11 dogs; one was killed, and the zoo transferred 10 to other organizations.

Legal experts said it is difficult to put the settlement in context without seeing the exact wording of the agreement.

“The agreement won't be binding on the courts, but it may be probative of what the situation was at the zoo and (the USDA's) impression of it,” said Gary J. Ogg, a Downtown lawyer.

“I'm sure the compromise settlement agreement probably contains language that says this is a compromise of disputed claims and that the zoo admits no liability. For $4,550, that makes a lot of sense. If it had gone forward, they probably would have paid a lot more than that in legal fees,” said Michael Streib, a Duquesne University law professor.

The AZA conducted a review of the zoo after the incident, but association spokeswoman Jennifer Fields said the outcome is confidential because it is part of the facility's accreditation process, “which is always confidential.”

The association publishes a 92-page handbook of zoo and aquarium standards that outlines requirements for animal welfare as well as human safety. It also requires members to have safety procedures in place in exhibits to prevent attacks and injuries by potentially dangerous animals and response procedures to deal with incidents.

The Derkoshes filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the zoo, alleging zoo officials knew about dangers at the dog exhibit but failed to correct them. The zoo is contesting the complaint. An attorney for the Derkoshes could not be reached on Thursday.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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