In a story that is too horrific to imagine, a 2-year old boy was killed after an unfortunate accident at the Pittsburgh zoo yesterday. His mother had propped the boy up to get a better look at the exhibit of African painted dogs when the boy slipped and fell to his death.  Letting your child sit on the railing – a simple gesture so your child can marvel at the unusual sites a zoo has to offer. I’ve done it before and you might have too. No one believes the worst will happen, but this family was forced to watch the horror unfold.

Eleven dogs descended upon the little boy immediately. Seven of the dogs were quickly corralled back into a building, while three were eventually drawn off by zookeepers. The last of the pack would not heed its trainers and the staff was forced to shoot and kill it in order to remove the toddler’s body.

I refuse to believe the boy survived the 11 foot fall into the animal den, which means in my mind he had no idea of the gruesome attack that occurred when he landed. I think that is just a mother’s natural defense mechanism – to protect our babies even in tragedy. However, the truth is the cause of death remains unclear.

The African dogs – also known as painted wolves –  are considered endangered in the wild.   Before this accident, the staff at the Pittsburgh zoo was recognized for their work with the species.   They produced the only liter raised in captivity in the United States.

At the zoo, the exhibit is just like ones you might have seen in Florida or New York or even your local zoo.  The dogs occupied 1.5 acres called the Painted Dog Bush Camp.  Their area is part of a larger one named the African Savanna, where elephants, lions and other animals can be seen in something more like their natural habitat. Patrons of the zoo walk out onto a deck encased in glass but open in front – the railing is there to protect them as visitors look down to see the animals.  I have felt that fear in the pit of my stomach as I’ve hoisted my daughter up over the railing to get a better look at the red pandas in the Central Park Zoo, but a scene like this is the farthest thing from my mind.

The entire zoo is closed and it is unclear at what point it will reopen.  In the meantime, police, zoo officials, and the Allegheny County medical examiner’s office are all conducting investigations.  The zoo had never had a visitor death prior to this tragic accident and no decision has been made regarding the future of the exhibit.

Update: contrary to my motherly hopes, the toddler’s autopsy report concludes the boy was killed by the animals, not the fall.

(photo: Lein de Leon / Shutterstock)