A 2-year-old boy fell 14 feet into the African painted dog exhibit area at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium shortly before noon Sunday and was mauled to death by the dogs.
Police said the child lost his balance after his mother lifted him in a standing position onto the 4-foot-high wooden railing of an elevated, gazebolike structure that overlooks the enclosure. He toppled over the railing, hit a mesh shelf and landed on the ground of the open exhibit space, where he was set upon by the 11 dogs in the area.
The medical examiner’s office would not release the child’s name Sunday evening. Police said he and his 34-year-old mother are from Pleasant Hills and were visiting the zoo with cousins, an adult and another child.
Major Crimes Lt. Kevin Kraus declined to comment on potential charges and said the bureau will continue to investigate to determine if anything could have prevented the death.
Angela Cinti, 20, of Bethel Park saw the attack and described a horrifying scene that lasted minutes but seemed like hours.
“The screams just kept coming and coming,” said Ms. Cinti, who was at the zoo with her boyfriend. “We were on our way to the polar bear exhibit when we heard the most horrible piercing screams. … Someone was begging for help, asking someone to do something.”
As they ran toward the screams, she saw a small crowd of distressed onlookers and the little boy’s apparently lifeless body lying on the hill inside the painted dog exhibit with three of the animals at his head, neck and leg.
Lt. Kraus said no one in the crowd of observers went in after the child. The boy was pronounced dead at the scene at noon, 12 minutes after the first 911 call.
Lt. Kraus said an initial group of zoo personnel reached the scene minutes after the boy’s fall and lured seven of the dogs away from him and into a secure area. A second set began throwing objects and using other distraction techniques to secure three more dogs.
“Dummy tranquilizer rounds” were shot into the exhibit in an effort to scare the dogs away, which zoo officials said were ineffective because “the dogs were in pack mentality and not responding.” Lt. Kraus said zoo personnel might have avoided using real rounds in fear of further injuring the child. Zoo personnel were not available to explain their reasoning.
A final dog, which was acting very aggressively toward the victim and zoo personnel, was shot multiple times by police officers and later died. Police are trying to determine if the animal had a history of threatening behavior.
“It’s been traumatic for everybody,” Lt. Kraus. “From what I understand what occurred at that scene until it was secured was horrific.”
Zoo president and chief executive officer Barbara Baker said, “Our hearts and prayers and deepest sympathies go out to the family of the child.”