I was in South Africa in the fall of last year, spending a week on safari near the Botswana border. I’d been to Africa once before, but that was east, not south, and on this trip I encountered several animals I had never met before. I saw kudu, white rhino, and brown hyena, but the most exciting find, the one that I’d been hoping for the most, was Lycaon pictus – the African wild dog. Sometimes called the painted wolf, the wild dog is one of Africa’s rarest hunters, having been extirpated from much of its range. We were lucky enough to catch the pack coming home after a hunt, with dogs trotting back to their dens and reunited after a chase. It was easily one of my favorite animal encounters in the wild ever. Then I came back from safari and turned on the news…While I’d been out in the bush, another far less pleasant wild dog encounter was taking place, this time at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. A young boy, visiting the zoo with his mother, was lifted up to get a closer view of the dogs. He some how slipped from her grasp and fell. There was a net in place down below, but it was meant to catch cameras and cell phones, not toddlers, and he bounced right out of it, landing at the very feet of the dogs below. By the time emergency personal arrived, it was over. One dog was killed driving the pack away from their kill. The rest of the dogs were herded away; they were eventually sent to another zoo. The news went international.
It probably didn’t surprise anyone that there was a lawsuit. Almost universally, public support was on the side of the zoo. Much of said public support has gone on to say some very harsh words towards the mother, both for putting the child in the position of danger and then for going on to sue the zoo. We don’t need to repeat what was been said here: there are few pains worse than the loss of a child, and I would not wish it anyone. Likely the lawsuit is less about the money (I’m sure the lawyers thought about that as they attached themselves to the case later on) than it is about absolving herself of responsibility for the child’s death.What horrifies me the most about this case is how avoidable it was… and how often I’ve seen near misses since then. Visitors hoping to see big cats closely hop guard railings and approach the fence… within reach of the cats within. Visitors drop phones or cameras and climb railings to retrieve them… balancing precariously over moats. Confront them with the fact that what they are doing is idiotic or dangerous and they are apt to greet you either with baffled confusion or with outrage that you would presume to interfere with them.
In the time between its opening and its closure, thousands of zoo guests had visited the wild dog exhibit at Pittsburgh. None of them had fallen in. Most zoo visitors follow the rules put in place to ensure their safety. Of those that don’t, most count on idiotic luck to keep them safe… if they think of it at all. One of these days, they won’t be so lucky.