Endangered wild dogs associated with a Somerset County preservation program were responsible for the death of a toddler who fell into an exhibit at the Pittsburgh zoo on Sunday, authorities say.
The boy’s mother had picked him up and put him on top of a railing at the edge of a viewing deck at the African painted dogs exhibit late Sunday morning when he lost his balance and fell, Barbara Baker, CEO and president of the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, told The Associated Press.
There was a safety net below the railing, but it failed to catch him and the boy dropped more than 10 feet into the enclosure, she said.
“The child was so small that he bounced. He bounced twice and then he bounced into the exhibit,” said Baker, tearing up at a news conference Monday afternoon.
The animals attacked the child so violently and quickly that by the time a veterinarian and other zoo staffers arrived seconds later, they determined it would have been futile to try rescuing the boy, she said.
Baker said she had been informed by the Allegheny County medical examiner that an autopsy determined the boy survived the plunge. The medical examiner’s office has not yet publicly confirmed its findings or released the boy’s name.
Facilities have been under development to introduce a painted dogs breeding program at the zoo’s International Conservation Center near Fairhope in southern Somerset County. The 724-acre center opened off Glen Savage Road includes parts of Allegheny and Fairhope townships.
African painted dogs and springbok gazelles were scheduled to join African elephants at the center this fall, Baker said during an accreditation visit to the center in July.
Zoo spokeswoman Tracy Gray said she had no information about the dogs’ arrival in Somerset County, but Allegheny Township Supervisor Dale E. Miller said he does not believe any dogs have been brought to the International Conservation Center.
Zoo officials have been keeping township leaders abreast of the facility’s development, Miller said.
“They have been working with us pretty well,” Miller said.
In April 2011, more than 60 animal experts gathered at the center for a Painted Dog Conference. One of conference leaders stressed the importance of the Pittsburgh zoo’s breeding program.
“They are a critically endangered species, with a better than 50 percent chance the species will go extinct in our lifetime,” said John Lemon, chairman of Painted Dog Conservation Inc. in Perth, Australia.
“It’s ideal for them to be in an open-range situation that the ICC can provide – an area large enough to display naturalistic behavior in social structure right through to breeding.”
Pittsburgh zoo’s breeding program is being developed in partnership with Painted Dog Conservation Inc. The organization calls painted dogs the most-threatened carnivore species in Africa, numbering less than 3,000 in the wild. In 1900, there were half a million dogs in 39 countries, the organization’s website said.
The painted dog has been designated as a symbol for programs targeting at-risk youth in the Pittsburgh area. Project Destiny is developing a cabin retreat in the Somerset County center, the zoo’s website says. Exposure to the conservation program is intended to promote positive social and character development and leadership skills through cultural learning.
The zoo was immediately closed after Sunday’s accident but was expected to reopen today.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.