A 2-year-old boy was mauled to death today after falling into the African painted dog exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium.
Pittsburgh police Major Crimes Lt. Kevin Kraus said the boy’s 34-year-old mother placed the child in a standing position on a wooden railing overlooking the enclosure.
“Almost immediately after that he lost his balance, fell down off the railing into the actual pit and he was immediately attacked by 11 dogs,” Lt. Kraus said.
The incident occurred at 11:48 a.m. at the Highland Park complex, according to an emergency dispatch supervisor. The zoo was shut down within a half-hour of the incident and will remain closed indefinitely.
Zoo President and Chief Executive Officer Barbara Baker said at a news conference shortly after the incident that the child fell over the wooden railing and off of a mesh barrier where the painted dogs were on display. A zoo spokeswoman and police said the wooden railing is 4 feet in height and the lower mesh barrier is 11 feet 4 inches above the open exhibit space.
“The screams just kept coming and coming: ‘Someone help. Someone has to do something,’” recounted Angela Cinti, 20, of Bethel Park, who was visiting the zoo today with her boyfriend Nick Kramer, 16, of Bethel Park.
Lt. Kraus said zoo personnel responded within minutes. The first personnel on scene were able to lure seven of the dogs away from the victim and into a secure and separated area. A second set of personnel began “throwing objects and some other techniques that they use” to secure three more dogs.
He said the final dog, which was acting very aggressively toward the victim and zoo personnel, was shot multiple times by two Pittsburgh police officers and died.
Lt. Kraus said none of the people who observed the child fall into the enclosure made an attempt to go after him. The news release from zoo officials noted that keepers attempted to enter the yard but were unable to reach the child.
One ineffective technique used by zoo personnel to lure the animals away from the child was to fire “dummy tranquilizer rounds,” Lt. Kraus said.
Information released from the zoo indicated that “unfortunately, the dogs were in pack mentality and not responding.”
The child was pronounced dead at the scene 12 p.m.
The incident is under investigation by police and the zoo. Lt. Kraus said it would be inappropriate to speculate on potential charges at this time and the bureau will continue to investigate to determine if anything could have been prevented.
Police said the boy and his mother are from Pleasant Hills and were visiting the zoo with relatives, an adult and another child, at the time of the incident.
Ms. Cinti described a horrifying scene that lasted a little more than 5 minutes but seemed like hours.
“We were on our way to the polar bear exhibit when we heard the most horrible piercing screams. … Someone was begging for help, asking someone to do something,” she said. The couple ran back in the direction they came from, passing the bear exhibits. The screams continued.
As they reached the painted dog exhibit, she saw a small crowd of distressed onlookers. “One woman with a baby in the stroller was screaming that someone needed to do something,” Ms. Cinti said. She said she could see the little boy’s apparently lifeless body lying on the hill inside the exhibit. “There were three dogs: one at his head, one on the left side of his neck and another one down by his leg. … A [zoo employee] got there and hopped over a fence with a rake and he was banging … trying to distract the dogs but they wouldn’t move,” she said.
Ms. Cinti, a student at Community College of Allegheny County, tracked the time frame with her cell phone, saying she made a call at 11:49 a.m. when she and her boyfriend first headed toward the commotion. She said her cell phone shows that the call was ended five minutes and five seconds later, when a half-dozen zoo employees arrived and dispersed the crowd.
Bart DePasquale, who was at the zoo today with his two children for a birthday party, was near the tiger exhibit when he heard screams coming from the direction of the African painted dogs exhibit.
“People were yelling ‘Get away,’ and ‘Stay away,’ and it wasn’t just one person, it was an entire group of people,” said Mr. DePasquale, 29, of Fox Chapel. “The screams sounded heavily distressed and the people were using profanity. They were shouting to zoo employees.”
Mr. DePasquale and Ms. Cinti said they were told to go inside the nearest buildings where they were kept there for about a half hour.
“We were locked down in the building and told to stay inside. … We thought it was a problem with one of the animals that got loose. Then we were told it was an incident with the wild dogs and that a child had been hurt.”
When patrons were told the zoo was closed and they needed to leave, Mr. DePasquale said, “On the way out, I saw a mother who was distressed and crying and other people who couldn’t even talk about it. … People and anyone who had been close were almost in tears, were walking out glassy-eyed. That’s when multiple people told me the dogs attacked a young child.”
Ms. Baker said the zoo initially declared a “code blue,” meaning an accident involving a human had occurred. That was followed with a “code red,” meaning that there was a serious human emergency.
Ms. Baker said no decision has been made about the future of the exhibit.
The African painted dog exhibit debuted after the October 2009 birth of the pups. A surrogate mutt was drafted into service for the nine pups after their natural mother died of a ruptured uterus. In the spring of this year, nine of the 11 painted dogs escaped a section of their enclosure causing a brief shutdown of the zoo.
Ms. Baker said at that time on May 5 that the dogs got into a 1.5-acre “backup yard” not visible to the public, but the dogs were not out of their exhibit.
African painted dogs are an endangered species.
In September, the zoo announced that it had again been accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums after a review of its animal care, veterinary programs, conservation, education and safety.
AZA is a nonprofit organization with a team of professionals that inspect and review each zoo or aquarium seeking accreditation. Currently 224 facilities have been recognized and approved by the organization, including eight in Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh zoo has been recognized by AZA since 1986.The accreditation commission evaluates every zoo and aquarium to determine if they meet accepted standards for safety policies and procedures, security, physical facilities, animal management and care, health and nutrition, veterinary programs, involvement in conservation and research and education programs.
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