PITTSBURGH -- A mother's attempt to give her two-year-old son abetter view of wild African dogs turned into a "horrific" tragedy at thePittsburgh Zoo after the boy fell into the exhibit and was killed by apack of the animals as relatives and bystanders looked on.
Lt.Kevin Kraus of the Pittsburgh police said the attack happened at about11:45 a.m. Sunday after the mother picked the child up and put him ontop of a railing at the edge of a viewing deck. "Almost immediatelyafter that he lost his balance, fell down off the railing into the pit,and he was immediately attacked by 11 dogs," Kraus said. "It was veryhorrific."
It's not yet clear whether the boy died from the fallor the attack, said Barbara Baker, president of the Pittsburgh Zoo &PPG Aquarium. Zoo officials at first estimated the boy fell 14 feet,but police said it was 11. It's not clear which is correct.
Authoritiessaid that zoo staff and then police responded "within minutes" butvisitors described that time as being filled with screams for help.Zookeepers called off some of the dogs, and seven of them immediatelywent to a back building. Three more eventually were drawn away from thechild, but the last dog was aggressive and police had to shoot theanimal.
Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the Association of Zoos andAquariums, said no one he's spoken to can recall any deaths of childrenat an accredited zoo over the last 40 years or more. Feldman said thePittsburgh Zoo successfully completed its 5-year review in September,which means it meets or exceeds all safety standards.
Authoritiesdidn't release the name of the boy or his mother, but say she is 34years old and lives in Pleasant Hills, just outside Pittsburgh. Theboy's father arrived on the scene soon after the accident, police said.
The zoo was immediately closed, and it was not clear when it will reopen, authorities said.
Theso-called painted dogs are about as big as medium-sized domestic dogs,and 37 to 80 pounds, according to the zoo. They have large, rounded earsand dark brown circles around their eyes and are considered endangered.
Theattack happened in a 1.5 acre exhibit called the Painted Dog Bush Campthat's part of a larger open area where elephants, lions and otheranimals can be seen. Visitors walk onto a deck that is glassed on thesides, but open in front where the roughly four-foot railing is located.
InMay, some of the dogs crawled under a fence and escaped into a part ofthe exhibit that's usually closed. The zoo was on lockdown for about anhour as a precaution.
Past fatal attacks at have prompted zoosaround the nation to review safety features of their exhibits. In 2007 atiger jumped over a wall at the San Francisco zoo, killing one visitorand wounding two others. Authorities first said the wall was 18 feethigh, but a review found it was just 12 ½ feet.
In September a man jumped off an elevated viewing train at the Bronx Zoo in New York and was severely mauled by tigers.
Kraus said there was nothing to prevent visitors to the painted dog exhibit from jumping into the exhibit area.
Policeand the Allegheny County medical examiner's office are investigating,and they haven't yet interviewed the mother and father, who arereceiving grief counseling.
Baker said the zoo, which has neverhad a visitor death, will also investigate. She said no decision hasbeen made yet on the future of the exhibit.