Police, neighbors identify Pittsburgh zoo mauling victim |

Police, neighbors identify Pittsburgh zoo mauling victim

A 2-year old boy fell from this viewing platform into the painted dog exhibit and was mauled to death by several of the dogs at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium according to zoo president and CEO Barbara Baker at a press conference at the zoo in Highland Park, Monday, Nov. 5, 2012. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium president and CEO Barbara Baker talks about the incident with a two-year old boy who tragically fell, Sunday, from a viewing platform into the painted dog exhibit and was mauled to death by several of the dogs at a press conference at the Zoo in Highland Park, Monday, November 5, 2012. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
A two-year old boy fell from this viewing platform into the painted dog exhibit and was mauled to death by several of the dogs at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium in 2012.

The lasting image of Maddox Derkosh’s death in a pit of African painted dogs evokes nightmares and brought emotional responses Monday from around the world.

On the quiet, winding road in Whitehall where Maddox lived, neighbors and friends tried to focus on the image of a cute little boy with red glasses, pulled in a red wagon by his doting parents, Jason and Elizabeth Derkosh.

“They went nowhere without Maddox,” said next-door neighbor Rachel Majcher, 33, a high school classmate of Elizabeth Derkosh. “I cannot imagine the dark cloud that is following them.”

Relatives gathered at the Derkoshes’ Highgrove Road home declined comment. Many neighbors on the suburban street with manicured lawns said they were too distraught to speak at length.

“I can’t imagine as a mom myself what a tragedy that would be,” Majcher said. “Your heart stops when your kid skins a knee.”

Police said Elizabeth Derkosh, 33, lifted up Maddox, 2, to the top of a 4-foot fence to see into the painted dogs exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium on Sunday, and the boy fell 14 feet into the enclosure. The 11 dogs, which are territorial by nature, went into a pack mentality and attacked the boy when he hit the ground, zoo CEO Barbara Baker said.

He survived the fall and the dogs killed him, according to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“It was an uncontrollable situation for zookeepers,” Baker said on Monday during her second news conference on the death. “It happened literally in seconds. Once the child was in the exhibit there wasn’t anything anyone could do.”

She described the first fatality involving a visitor in the Highland Park facility’s 114-year history as the zoo’s “worst nightmare.”

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to that family,” said an emotional Baker, who paused several times.

The zoo will reopen Tuesday “so visitors can pay their respects,” Baker said. People placed teddy bears at the zoo entrance, Baker said, and the zoo received condolences from as far away as the Netherlands.

Several thousand people responded to the tragedy on the zoo’s Facebook page with a mix of sorrow, criticism of the zoo and the boy’s parents, and heated exchanges about who was to blame.

Spokeswoman Tracy Gray said the zoo’s social media manager was monitoring the posts, but declined to comment.

The dogs will remain quarantined for 30 days, and the observation deck will close until at least spring while officials review its safety.

The rail top tilts in toward the observation deck and is designed to prevent a child from falling into the exhibit, Baker said. She said staff discourages visitors from placing children on the rail, but the exhibit features no warning signs.

Maddox fell onto netting designed to catch litter and then rolled onto the ground. Workers lured 10 dogs away from the boy, but an 11th ignored the workers and acted aggressively. Workers fired empty tranquilizer darts, but feared hitting the child, Baker said.

Police Officers Colby Neidig and Derek Williams entered the pit and fatally shot the dog with zoo approval, officials said. Police officials would not allow them to speak, police spokeswoman Diane Richard said.

Police estimated the entire incident lasted about 10 minutes.

Zoo keepers and staff trained to respond in emergencies were within 10 feet of the exhibit and arrived in seconds after receiving radio alerts. They could do nothing to help, Baker said.

“Life is full of risks,” she said. “We recognize we work with wild animals, dangerous animals. There’s no such thing as a fail-safe exhibit.”

Police and the Department of Agriculture, which licenses zoos, are investigating, and Baker said zoo personnel would begin an internal investigation.

Mike Manko, spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., said the office has not determined whether it will file charges against Elizabeth Derkosh.

The Derkoshes married in October 2008. Jason Derkosh works for architectural and engineering firm L.R. Kimball. Employees there declined comment.

The family moved into the neighborhood less than a year ago, and Majcher said she was surprised to recognize her new neighbor.

Elizabeth Derkosh grew up in the South Hills and attended St. Bernard School in Mt. Lebanon and Keystone Oaks High School, Majcher said.

Majcher’s children, ages 4 and 6, would yell Maddox’s name whenever they saw the boy in the backyard. She said many of the houses on the family-friendly street don’t have fences, so it’s common to see children running through backyards playing together.

“The hardest part is going to be to explain to my kids that their playmate is no longer here,” Majcher said. “His life will be celebrated.”

Majcher said her father saw Maddox excitedly trick-or-treating in a Superman costume.

“You’d always see him on his little John Deere, zooming around,” Majcher said. “He was just a happy 2-year-old.”

William Slater II Funeral Service in Scott is handling the funeral arrangements.

Staff writers Stephanie Hacke, Laura Van Wert, Adam Smeltz and Michael Hasch contributed to this report. Margaret Harding and Bob Bauder are staff writers for Trib Total Media.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.