Boy's zoo death 'a horrible tragedy'

The president of a zoo where a two-year-old boy fell into an enclosure and was mauled to death by African wild dogs said it had met or exceeded safety standards, proving that no exhibit was "fail-proof".

Nearby staff responded "within seconds" on Sunday but quickly determined the dog attack was fatal and did not send handlers into the enclosure to intervene, Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium's Barbara Baker said.

Instead, the dogs were recalled into an indoor enclosure as they had been trained to respond, though four of the 11 lingered near the boy even after blank anaesthetic darts, used out of caution for the boy's safety, were fired to shoo them away. One of the dogs, from an endangered species, was shot dead by police.

Ms Baker said the zoo had been open since 1898 and it was the first time there had been "a visitor incident of this magnitude". She called the boy's death a "horrible, horrible tragedy" and said there was "no such thing as a fail-proof exhibit".

She struggled to maintain composure during a news conference yesterday and made clear she was careful to consider the family's feelings before answering questions, including one about how the boy died.

She paused for several seconds before saying: "I'm trying to think of a family-sensitive way to address that. The child did not die from the fall. The child was mauled by the dogs."

Police were investigating, though Commander Thomas Stangrecki, who attended Ms Baker's news conference, said he was there only to observe.

The boy's mother had put him on a wooden railing at the edge of a viewing deck before he fell late on Sunday morning. He bounced out of netting below before dropping more than 10ft into the dogs' enclosure.

Ms Baker said the Allegheny County medical examiner's office determined the boy survived the plunge. Pittsburgh news outlets said the boy was from suburban Whitehall.

A spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits them if they meet certain standards, said Pittsburgh Zoo successfully completed its five-year review in September. Ms Baker said the US Department of Agriculture had inspected the zoo and found it safe in recent months.

The wild dogs, about as big as medium-size domestic dogs, resemble wolves. They hunt in packs, targeting prey such as antelopes, gazelles and wildebeest calves, and their kills are noted for their savagery.

Visitors view the zoo's dogs from a wooden deck enclosed except for the front, where the roughly 4ft-high wooden railing is located.

The exhibit is closed indefinitely, and the dogs have been quarantined, though Ms Baker said they would not be put down. The zoo has also been closed since the boy's death but would reopen today, she said.

Mourners left teddy bears and other items outside the zoo and responded to a condolence message on its Facebook page.

Nearly 1,000 people commented on the post, some passionately condemning the boy's mother and others urging compassion and understanding. More than a few parents acknowledged lifting their children on to the rail, too.

Ms Baker said zoo officials "discourage" parents from setting their children on the wide, wooden railing, which slopes towards the viewing platform at a 45-degree angle so a child placed there would be more likely to fall backwards into a parent's arms than forward into the exhibit.

Director of animal care at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in neighbouring Ohio, Doug Warmolts, said exhibits were designed with visitors' expectations in mind because they all wanted to have unobstructed views and "the up-close experience", but the first priority was always safety.

He said accidents like the boy's death in Pittsburgh were "one of those things that keep you up at night".

"I'm sure it's going to send ripples through our industry and everybody's going to double-check their measures and how to respond to things like that," he said.

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