PITTSBURGH, Penn. — The 2-year-old boy who died at the Pittsburgh Zoo over the weekend bounced two times on a protective netting after falling off a railing and into an African painted dog exhibit, where the dogs then attacked and killed him, the zoo’s chief executive said Monday.
Barbara Baker, who has been with the zoo since 1990, occasionally looked distressed during the morning news conference as she answered questions about Sunday’s tragedy — what she said is the first visitor death in the venue’s more-than-100-year history.
“The zoo feels terrible that this tragic accident happened,” she said, then choking up as she added, “It’s the worst nightmare, as a zoo professional.”
Witnesses told police that the boy’s unidentified 34-year-old mother, from Pleasant Hills, Pa., had sat him on the 4-foot railing along an elevated viewing area. Then he fell.
“From witnesses’ accounts, the child was so small that he bounced, he bounced twice, and then he bounced into the exhibit,” Baker said, after taking a long pause. “So the safety net did catch him, it just didn’t hold him.”
Staffers rushed to the scene but it was too late, Baker said. “It happened so quickly, it happened literally in seconds, it was very, very quick,” she said. “There was very, very little anybody could do.”
Police shot one dog that refused to retreat from the exhibit when called. Baker said a medical examination showed that the boy had been killed by the dogs, not the fall.
The zoo passed recent inspections and “discouraged” visitors from putting children on such railings, Baker said, although she did not elaborate on whether there were specific policies or regulations in place.
She acknowledged there were no warning signs on the enclosure’s railing.
Police are investigating the incident and Baker said that the zoo would, too.
The dogs, who Baker said are the most endangered canine species in the world, will not be put down. They have been put into a 30-day quarantine and the exhibit will be closed until further notice; police now have custody of the scene.
The rest of the zoo, however, was scheduled to reopen Tuesday, Baker said, so that visitors could pay their respects. She said zoo officials around the world have sent condolences.
One reporter asked Baker whether she took responsibility for not creating a fail-proof exhibit.
“Life is full of risk,” she said. “There’s no fail-proof part of risk in life. We do everything we possibly can and evaluate it every day. The safety not only of our visitors but our staff as well. We work with wild animals, we work with dangerous animals every day.”
The reporter interrupted and pressed her: Do you take responsibility for not creating a failproof exhibit?
“There is no such thing as a failproof exhibit,” she said.
Officials had already reviewed the park for safety and will continue to look at other potential changes, she said.