The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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December 6, 2012

DA: Pittsburgh zoo removing deck where boy fell

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Zoo is removing an observation deck from which a 2-year-old boy fell before he was fatally mauled by wild African dogs in an exhibit below, a district attorney said Thursday.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. met with zoo leaders and toured the exhibit for about two hours before issuing a statement confirming the platform's removal.

Zappala announced last week that 34-year-old Elizabeth Derkosh won't be prosecuted in the Nov. 4 death of her son, Maddox. The boy, who had vision issues, leaned forward and fell into the exhibit after his mother lifted him onto a wooden rail overlooking the dogs' enclosure. He was immediately attacked by the dogs and bled to death.

Zappala called Maddox's death a "tragic accident." He said his office is still investigating whether anyone at the zoo might face criminal charges for contributing to the boy's death and how such accidents can be prevented.

Officials at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium had said the exhibit would remain closed indefinitely and the dogs were being quarantined for at least 30 days, but they've not said whether the dogs would again be exhibited in the same open-air enclosure or in some other manner.

Zappala's statement said he met with zoo president, Dr. Barbara Baker, and city police who responded the day the boy was killed.

The meeting "included a walkthrough of the exhibit and was a productive step toward ensuring that this tragedy will not reoccur in the future," the statement said, "To that end, Dr. Baker advised the District Attorney that out of respect for the community and for the Derkosh family, the observation platform of the exhibit at issue would be removed."

The wooden platform is surrounded by wooden rails about 4 feet high and, below the front railing and on the sides of the platform, clear plastic or metal mesh to prevent anyone from going into the exhibit about 10 feet below. But in front of the platform, where the boy was placed on the wooden rail about 4 feet above the observation deck, there is nothing to prevent someone from falling into the exhibit.

A net also extends a couple of feet from the base of the platform, to catch paper cups and other debris dropped by zoo visitors, and witnesses say the boy fell onto that net but bounced off it and into the exhibit.

Spokeswoman Tracy Gray said the zoo wouldn't comment on whether the platform will be replaced with another means of viewing the wild dogs or if the exhibit will be scrapped altogether. Cheetahs were previously displayed in the same enclosure about 20 years ago.

The zoo is conducting an internal investigation into the boy's death. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates the exhibiting of wild animals, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums — an accrediting association which enforces safety and other standards — are also conducting separate investigations expected to take months.

 

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