PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania (WPXI) - A 2-year-old boy is dead after falling off of an observation deck and into an exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.
The child was with his mother and friends when he fell from a rail, tumbling about 11 feet into an African painted dogs exhibit.
Pittsburgh police's major crimes Lt. Kevin Kraus said the child's mother had lifted him onto a railing on the deck for the exhibit housing the wild dogs.
"The mother picked the child up, put him on the railing," Kraus said. "Almost immediately after that, he fell into the pit."
Investigators said after falling into the pit, the dogs immediatley began mauling him.
It was not clear if the child's exact cause of death was from the fall or the attack according to Pittsburgh Zoo president and CEO Barbara Baker.
"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.
When the boy fell other visitors immediately told staff members, who responded along with Pittsburgh police, officials said.
Zookeepers said they called off the dogs, and seven of them immediately went to a back building.
Three more eventually were drawn away from the boy, but the last dog wouldn't come into the building, and police had to shoot him.
Baker said the dogs, which are territorial by nature, went into a pack mentality and attacked the boy.
"The dogs were doing what the dogs normally do," Baker said.
The zoo was evacuated immediately after the incident, Baker said.
Bart DePasquale was at the zoo with family members for a birthday party near the painted dog exhibit, and heard screams erupt from the area.
"They were saying, 'Get away. Stay away!'" DePasquale said. "Eventually the screams were heavily distressed. There was profanity."
The dogs are about as big as medium-sized domestic dogs, 2 to 2½ feet high and 37 to 80 pounds, according to the zoo.
African wild dogs are also known as cape hunting dogs, spotted dogs, and painted wolves.
They have large, rounded ears and dark brown circles around their eyes and are considered endangered.
Police and the Allegheny County medical examiner's office are investigating.
Baker said the zoo, which has never had a visitor death, plans an internal investigation, and no decision has been made yet on the future of the exhibit.
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.
In May some of the 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, and their mother died of a ruptured uterus shortly after delivering the litter.
Five of the pups survived.
The mortality rate for painted pups is 50 percent, even when born in the wild to a healthy mother.
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.
The zoo will remain closed until further notice.