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Boy dies after fall into pen at Pittsburgh Zoo

PITTSBURGH -- A 2-year-old boy visiting the Pittsburgh Zoo was killed when he fell off a railing that his mother had put him on to view a pack of African painted dogs, police said.

The child fell into the enclosure and the wild dogs pounced and mauled him. Police were not sure whether the boy died from the 11-foot fall Sunday or from the attack.

Lt. Kevin Kraus of the Pittsburgh police described the accident as "horrific."

The names of the boy and his mother were not disclosed. She is 34 and lives just outside Pittsburgh. Police said the father arrived soon after the accident.

The child apparently fell from the 4- to 5-foot-high railing onto a mesh barrier, then into the pit.

Visitors alerted staff members when he fell. Zookeepers called off the dogs, and seven immediately went to a back building. Three more were drawn away from the boy eventually, but the last dog wouldn't come into the building, and police had to shoot it, said Barbara Baker, chief executive of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

"It's clear that the dogs did attack the child, but whether he died of the attack or the fall has yet to be determined," Baker said.

The dogs are about the size of medium domestic dogs, 2 to 2 1/2 feet high and 37 to 80 pounds, according to the zoo. African wild dogs, also known as cape hunting dogs, spotted dogs and painted wolves, are considered endangered. They have large, rounded ears and dark brown circles around their eyes.

Police and the Allegheny County medical examiner's office were investigating. Baker said the zoo, which had never had a visitor death, plans an internal investigation.

The dogs normally live in a 1.5-acre exhibit called the Painted Dog Bush Camp that's part of a larger open area called the African Savanna, where elephants, lions and other animals can be seen. Visitors walk onto a deck that is glassed on the sides, but open in front, with a railing. The mesh barrier is below the railing.

In May, some dogs crawled under a fence and escaped into a part of the exhibit that's usually closed. The zoo was on lockdown for about an hour as a precaution.

Ten African painted dogs were born at the zoo in 2009. Their mother died of a ruptured uterus shortly after delivering the litter. Five pups survived. The mortality rate for painted pups is 50 percent, even when born in the wild.

It was only the second litter to be hand-raised in captivity, along with one in the United Kingdom, zoo officials said at the time.

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