Wild dogs maul boy to death after fall from railing at Pittsburgh zoo

Two-year-old tumbles several metres into pack's enclosure after his mother hoists him on to a railing for a better look

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2012, 4:29am

Like many young visitors to the zoo, the boy may simply have wanted a better look. But his mother's decision to hoist the two-year-old onto the railing surrounding the exhibit of wild dogs turned out to be a fatal one.

The boy was killed on Sunday at the Pittsburgh zoo when he fell off the railing and the pack of African painted dogs pounced and mauled him to death, police said.

It was not clear whether the boy died from the fall or from the attack, the president of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, Barbara Baker, said.

"It was very horrific," said police officer Kevin Kraus, who added that the dogs attacked "immediately" after the boy fell at about 11.45am. Zoo officials at first estimated the boy fell about 4.3 metres, but police said the drop was 3.35 metres. It was not clear which is correct.

"The mother picked the child up, actually in a standing position lifted him up, and put him on the railing. Almost immediately after that he lost his balance," Kraus said.

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 said.

The zoo was immediately closed; it was not clear when it would reopen, authorities said.

Authorities did not release the name of the boy or his mother, other than to say she is 34 and lives in 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, up to 75cm high at the shoulder and weighing up to 37kg, 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. They hunt in packs in the wild, and Baker said they "were in pack mentality" during the attack.

The dogs normally live in a 6,000-square-metre exhibit called the Painted Dog Bush Camp that is part of a larger open area called the African Savanna, where elephants, lions and other animals can be seen. Visitors walk onto a deck glassed on the sides but open in front where the railing is located.

Zoo officials said there was also a mesh barrier beyond the railing, but Kraus said it was designed to catch small objects such as cameras, not people.

American Zoo Association spokesman Steve Feldman said no one he had spoken to could recall any deaths of children at an accredited zoo for more than 40 years. Feldman said the Pittsburgh zoo successfully completed its five-year review in September, which meant it met or exceeded all safety standards.

In May, some of the dogs escaped into part of the exhibit usually closed. The zoo was on lockdown for 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 injuring 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.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse