The president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, Barbara Baker, released more details Monday into the tragic death of a 2-year-old boy who fell into an African spotted dog exhibit Sunday.
Investigators said Maddox Derkosh’s mother had lifted him onto a railing on a deck for the exhibit housing 11 of the wild dogs. According to witness accounts, Derkosh fell and landed on protective netting and bounced two times before landing in the exhibit.
"What we understand from the medical examiner's report, the child did not die from the fall. The child was mauled by the dogs," said Baker. "The child initially was caught by the netting. From witness accounts the child was so small that he bounced, then he bounced twice and then bounced into the exhibit."
Rachel Majcher, who lives next door to Maddox’s family, said the boy was Elizabeth and Jason Derkosh’s only child.
“As a mom, I can’t imagine this tragedy. Your heart stops when your kid skins their knee, I can’t imagine what she’s going through,” Majcher said.
Majcher said he children enjoyed playing with Derkosh.
“He was a cute little guy with light hair and red glasses. Every time we were in the back or front yard, my little boy would get so excited to see him,” Majcher said. “The hardest part is going to be explaining to my kids that their playmate is no longer here.”
During a news conference Monday, Baker fought back tears as she discussed the incident.
"The zoo feels terrible about this tragic accident that happened. It's your worst nightmare as a zoo professional," Baker said.
When Derkosh fell, other visitors immediately told staff members, who responded along with Pittsburgh police, officials said.
Baker said trained staff members responded to the exhibit seconds after Derkosh fell in. She said it was immediately determined that it was too dangerous to physically send anyone in.
"It was too dangerous for staff to go in. It was determined immediately that it was not going to help. It was too late. There was no reason to send our staff into harm's way, nor is it our policy to send staff into harm's way," Baker said.
Zookeepers said they called off the dogs, and seven of them immediately went to a back building. Three more eventually were drawn away from Derkosh, but the last dog wouldn't come into the building, and police had to shoot him, Baker said.
Baker said the dog that was shot was not near Derkosh when police arrived
; however, emergency personal needed to get into the exhibit to rescue him, which is why the shooting was necessary.
"We allowed them, at our direction, to shoot the dog. At that particular time the dog was not near the child but we needed to get to the child. While we are not happy about that
(but) we understand that it had to happen," said Baker.
Police and the Allegheny County medical examiner's office are investigating. Baker said the zoo, which has never had a visitor death, plans an internal investigation. The exhibit is expected to be closed for the winter and the animals have been placed in quarantine. Baker said none of the dogs will be euthanized.
"Life is full of risk. There is no fail-proof part of life. We do everything we possibly can and we evaluate it every day, the safety of our visitors and our staff as well," Baker said. "We work with wild and dangerous animals every single day. There is no such thing as a fail-proof exhibit."
Majcher said she saw Elizabeth and Jason Derkosh walking together in the neighborhood, leaning on each other.
"I just hope this very close community can come together and support the family through this," Majcher said.
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.
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.
Ten African painted dogs were born at the zoo in 2009, and their mother died of a ruptured uterus shortly after delivering the litter. Five of the pups survived. The mortality rate for painted pups is 50 percent, even when born in the wild to a healthy mother.
It was only the second litter to be hand-raised in captivity, along with one in the United Kingdom, zoo officials said at the time.
The zoo is scheduled to reopen on Tuesday.