PITTSBURGH — A 2-year-old boy visiting the Pittsburgh zoo was killed Sunday morning when he fell off a railing that his mother had put him on top of to view a pack of African painted dogs, who pounced on the child and mauled him, police said.
It was not clear whether the boy died from the fall into the wild dog exhibit area or from the attack, said Barbara Baker, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.
"It was very horrific," said Lt. Kevin Kraus of the Pittsburgh police, who added that the dogs attacked "immediately" after the boy fell at about 11:45 a.m. Zoo officials at first estimated the boy fell 14 feet, but police said it was 11. It was not clear which is correct.
When the boy fell, other visitors immediately told staff members, who responded along with Pittsburgh police. Zookeepers called off some of the dogs, and seven of them immediately went to a back building. Three more eventually were drawn away from the child, but the last dog was aggressive and police had to shoot the animal, officials say.
The zoo was immediately closed; it was not clear when it would be reopened, authorities said.
Authorities didn't immediately release the name of the boy or his mother, but say she is 34 years old and lives in Pleasant Hills, just outside Pittsburgh. The boy's father arrived on the scene soon after the accident, police said.
The dogs are about as big as medium-sized domestic dogs, 2 to 2 1/2 feet high and 37 to 80 pounds, according to the zoo. African wild dogs are also known as cape hunting dogs, spotted dogs, and painted wolves. They have large, rounded ears and dark brown circles around their eyes and are considered endangered.
The dogs hunt in packs in the wild, and Baker said that they "were in pack mentality" during the attack.
The dogs normally live in a 1.5 acre exhibit called the Painted Dog Bush Camp that's part of a larger open area called the African Savanna, where elephants, lions and other animals can be seen. Visitors walk onto a deck that is glassed on the sides, but open in front where the railing is located. Visitors can look out at the dogs below.
Zoo officials said there is also a mesh barrier beyond the railing, but Kraus said it was designed to catch small objects such as cameras, and not humans.
Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said no one he's spoken to can recall any deaths of children at an accredited zoo over the last 40 years or more. Feldman said the Pittsburgh Zoo successfully completed its five-year review in September, which means it meets or exceeds all safety standards.
In May, some of the dogs crawled under a fence and escaped into a part of the exhibit that's usually closed. The zoo was on lockdown for about an hour as a precaution.
Past fatal attacks at zoos have prompted zoos around the nation to review safety features of their exhibits. In 2007, a tiger jumped over a wall at the San Francisco zoo, killing one visitor and wounding two others. In September a man jumped off an elevated viewing train at the Bronx Zoo in New York and was severely mauled by tigers.
Baker said the Pittsburgh Zoo has never had a visitor death. She said no decision has been made yet on the future of the exhibit.
Associated Press writer Ron Todt in Philadelphia contributed to this report.
by ThelmamaNovember 4, 2012 at 10:26 PM
That child should not have been put on the railing. She probably thought nothing would happen or she could hold onto him. Most zoos have it posted not to climb or sit on railings. Even if they didn't, it is common sense. Some people just don't think and live by an "it will not happen to me attitude". They sometimes act as if they can handle th kid in that situation. So sad. Her mistake was irrevocable and life shattering. 2 year olds even if you are holding on to them get excited and bounce around, so not smart to put them on any kind of railing. She probably just lost her grip, but in this case it had deadly consequences.
ETA: I feel bad for her. I don't think she is stupid, I think she just trusted her ability to hold on to him too much. And I agree with others, she does not need bashing.
by smurfbitebugNovember 4, 2012 at 10:28 PMEndangered or not I would have been fighting some dogs. No way could I just watch that go down.
by Sami....November 4, 2012 at 10:29 PMAwful :(
by t1gger143November 4, 2012 at 10:30 PMPeople do this all the time. I used to work at a amusement park and I swear people were trying to feed their kids to the sea lions.
by Allisonc7910November 4, 2012 at 10:31 PM
Just unthinkable. I couldn't believe it when I read it this morning. I can't believe a whole crowd of people saw this and no one jumped in to help. He even fell on the netting first to give someone a fighting chance of getting him out.
by Keeely07November 4, 2012 at 10:31 PMI saw this on fb. That's awful I'm mad her or the boyfriend didn't go in after him. Poor baby :(
by ssenterNovember 4, 2012 at 10:31 PMHow stupid is that woman and she is never going to forgive herself for her stupidity now.
by MaevelynNovember 4, 2012 at 10:32 PM
I don't understand why they don't have a staff member standing there. It's fine to have railing but there needs to be some one to say "Hey we don't allow that here." Our zoo has some enclosures that have little viewing spaces cut out for kids to stick their head through or to sit in little Plexiglas's windows but there are railings too. Where ever the rails are there is always an employee, they also answer questions and educate the public on the animals.
I totally agree--believe me, I'm not stating that the Mom was up for mother of the year prior to this--but the zoo has an obligation to keep the public at large safe. A 3 year old isn't capable of saying "Mom, I can't see the doggies but putting me up here isn't a brilliant idea" If you electrify the water that seperates the elephants "island" from the cement area where the public watches them WHY would you not plexiglass an enclosure where dangerous dogs roam 14 feet below? OR why not make the fence higher with a window cut out that prevents parents from setting their children on it?
As I said on my FB page--people tend to forget that animals at the zoo are wild. They aren't your puppy dog, or giant version of your kitty cat either...
kids shouldn't be able to crawl under but parents should never sit children on railing.
I live in Pgh and take my son to the zoo OFTEN as we are members.
While I believe the mother was irresponsible for putting her child on the railing the zoo also has culpability here as well. I stand 5ft 6in in my bare feet and am at mid chest level when standing on this deck. There is always the possibility of someone jumping or a child crawling up onto the railing. I always thought there needed to be a layer of protection between the railing and the ravine below adn this proves it.
This is a tragic accident in which a 3 year old lost his life. Both his and the Pgh Zoo and Aquarium are culpable here....
by Allisonc7910November 4, 2012 at 10:34 PM
Endangered or not I would have been fighting some dogs. No way could I just watch that go down.
Exactly, my instincts would have kicked in and I probably would have jumped right after, layed down on him at least.
by perezamberlyNovember 4, 2012 at 10:35 PMHow fucking stupid can she be? I know it wasn't her intention and I feel awful for her that she's going to have to live with that for the rest of her life but really?!? Her stupidity costed her sons life