JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Pittsburgh Zoo is still closed and will remain that way until further notice after a tragedy Sunday in which a 2-year-old boy was mauled to death by African painted dogs.
Police said the boy's mother picked him up and put him on top of a railing at the edge of the viewing deck for him to get a better look at the animals, and the boy slipped over the railing and tumbled into the dogs' exhibit.
The scenario has prompted other zoo officials to reflect on their facilities' own safety measures, and the Jacksonville Zoo staff is no exception. In fact, it hits especially close to home for its executive director, Tony Vecchio.
Vecchio began his 35-year career in the zoo business at the Pittsburgh Zoo. He said he knows the exhibit and employees there well.
The Jacksonville Zoo doesn't have wild dogs, but it's still a manmade land of lions and tigers, and safety is paramount.
"Some people just feel like because they're zoo animals they're different, they're safe, they're not dangerous, and we have rules and we have barriers here for a reason," Vecchio said. "We treat every animal as potentially dangerous."
At most zoos, exhibits are made specific to the animals. For instance, at the gorilla exhibit at the Jacksonville Zoo, there's a safety railing on the outside where people can view the animal, then on the inside of the exhibit there's another safety measure: an electric fence.
"Our zoo is accredited just as Pittsburgh is, so we're inspected regularly to make sure the exhibits are safe," Vecchio said. "So we have the same thing -- barriers, double barriers in the case of predators. It's just a very frustrating thing. People know what a barrier is, but if they don't respect it, they can still get into trouble."
Vecchio said Sunday's tragedy is tough for anyone in the industry to comprehend, especially given his ties to the zoo.
"I know the people there so well, I know the curator who's in charge of the dogs, I know the director there, in fact," he said. "I've worked with both of those people in my career and they're good people, and my heart goes out to them as well as the family right now. Just a terrible tragedy for everybody involved."
It's a tragedy Vecchio hopes reminds parents to be better safe than sorry.
"I stay behind the railing. I don't even let him touch the railing because he can pull himself forward sometimes," said Kristen Perez, the mother of a toddler, who took her son to the zoo Monday. "So I just, even picking him up to look over, I just stay behind the railing as much as I can."
Vecchio said the Jacksonville Zoo has a security and safety staff that constantly train for emergency scenarios like the one that happened Sunday. Two weeks ago, they participated in a drill where an elephant escaped its exhibit. They ran through what they'd do to keep zoo visitors and the animal safe.
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