PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium officials gave an update Monday afternoon following a tragic incident on Sunday that resulted in a 2-year-old boy losing his life.
Dr. Barbara Baker, the president of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, appeared to fight back tears throughout the press conference as she detailed how the boy, identified as Maddox Derkosh, fell into the African Painted Dog exhibit on Sunday morning.
Baker said staff responded immediately to the scene, but added that it was too dangerous for them to go into the exhibit.
“The question came to us of course immediately, ‘Why didn’t staff go in?’” said Dr. Baker. “And it was too dangerous.”
Investigators say the boy’s mother placed him on the railing, but he lost his balance and fell. Dr. Baker says zookeepers responded immediately and tried desperately to stop the animals.
“We had staff within 10-feet of the exhibit who immediately responded, and responded appropriately,” she said. “Sadly, there was not anything that anyone could do at that particular time.”
The child was initially caught by safety netting at the exhibit. However, witnesses said that the child was too small and bounced twice before falling into the exhibit.
Baker believes curiosity initially led the 11 dogs in the exhibit to the boy. The dogs are territorial by nature and quickly began to maul the child.
The zoo’s policy is to fire dummy darts in an attempt to spook the animals. The reason Baker gave for not firing live darts into the exhibit initially was that should one have struck the child, it could have caused more harm.
Baker said the zoo has spoken with the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office, who said the child did not die as a result of the initial fall.
KDKA-TV spoke with family members who did not want to go on camera, but confirmed that the child’s mother is Elizabeth Derkosh and the child’s name is Maddox, from Whitehall.
Crews boarded up the entrance to the lookout area of the exhibit Monday afternoon and it will remain closed off through the winter.
The zoo has not made a decision as to whether or not they will keep them yet.
Dr. Baker says they work with dangerous animals and there is no way to provide a fail proof exhibit.
She says they’ll take a close look at other railings at other exhibits. She says they are designed at a 45-degree angle to prevent accidents like what happened on Sunday.
“So that if a child is placed on that railing, which is at a 45-degree angle – so it’s much steeper than this – that if the child should fall that child would fall hopefully backwards and not forward,” she said.
The dogs have been placed in quarantine and will remain there for 30 days. All are up to date on their medical care and will not be euthanized.
Baker said the zoo runs drills twice a year for various incidents ranging from trip and falls to what happened on Sunday.
Police are continuing their investigation, while an internal investigation will also be conducted by the zoo.
The zoo will be open on Tuesday and people have already begun leaving stuffed animals and other items at the front gate of the facility.
This is the first incident where a visitor’s life was lost at the zoo since it opened in 1898.
The exhibit area originally housed cheetahs when it opened in 1992, but it was changed to African painted dogs in 2006.