The two boys who died after an African rock python escaped its enclosure were "two typical children who enjoyed life to a maximum," a great uncle said Tuesday, as the investigation into their deaths continued.
Noah Barthe, 4½, and Connor Barthe, who was soon to turn seven, were found dead in an apartment above Reptile Ocean in Campbellton, N.B.
Sgt. Alain Tremblay said that autopsies were being conducted on the bodies of the boys. It wasn't clear exactly when results would be available, but Tremblay said he expected they would provide details on what happened to the young victims.
Tremblay said the snake, which has been identified as an African rock python, has been put down and was sent for a necropsy in Fredericton.
Initial reports suggested the snake had escaped from the store and made its way through the ventilation system into the apartment above, where the brothers were on a sleepover. On Tuesday, Tremblay said that the snake was actually held in a glass enclosure on the second floor. It is believed the python escaped through the top of its cage into the ventilation system above.
The snake eventually came through the ceiling and down into the living room, where the brothers were sleeping. Tremblay declined to provide many details about the investigation, but said the snake was found in the same room where the boys were found.
Dave Rose, uncle of the mother of the boys, read a statement from the family that thanked the public for support but also asked for privacy as the family grieves.
Rose said Connor would have entered Grade 2 this year, while Noah was "extremely excited to join his big brother by starting kindergarten."
He said their last day was spent playing with their friends in the backyard. Later in the afternoon, reptile store owner Jean-Claude Savoie took all the children shopping, and then the two families went to Savoie's family farm.
"There they played with llamas and goats and horses," he said. "They went for a ride on the farm tractor with Jean-Claude, and he even let them steer the tractor, so it was a super day."
They returned for the sleepover at Savoie's house, and the two families stayed together until midnight, Rose said.
Locals are planning to hold a vigil for the two boys on Wednesday evening.
African rock python not permitted in N.B.
Earlier, a New Brunswick government official said the type of python believed to have killed two young brothers is not permitted in the province.
Steven Benteau, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, said African rock pythons are not allowed under exotic wildlife regulations.
"It is illegal for anyone to keep any exotic species that is not listed in the regulation unless they have a permit from the Department of Natural Resources," says a statement from the department.
"If such an animal is found, it will be confiscated and the person who possesses the animal can be charged under the Fish and Wildlife Act."
On Tuesday, the City of Campbellton's deputy mayor said previous complaints about Reptile Ocean will be probed.
The shop remains cordoned off with yellow police tape and officers remain at the scene, where two small bicycles are still parked outside.
Some people, believed to be relatives or friends of the store owner, Jean-Claude Savoie, were hostile toward the media, including making rude hand gestures.
One woman hid under a blanket as she was leaving the area.
The Department of Natural Resources said it could not comment on the specifics of the case as it is being investigated by the RCMP as a criminal matter.
But the New Brunswick SPCA, which, under provincial law licences all pet stores, also has no record of having licensed Reptile Ocean, officials said.
The only other way the store could operate would be as a refuge, for which it would need a permit from the department.
Petition being probed
Ian Comeau, Campbellton's deputy mayor and chair of the city's public protective services, said earlier Tuesday he just learned about an online petition to shut down the shop over the way its animals were being treated.
The petition, Shut Down Reptile Ocean, has 185 signatures from around the world.
"I know one thing, that petition never came to council. We never dealt with the complaints," said Comeau.
"So we will be checking that again this morning with our administrator and the clerk in regards to whether we had received complaints to that business."
Community seeking answers
Comeau said the community, which has a population of about 7,500 and is on the shores of the Restigouche River, is reacting with shock and disbelief.
Many people stopped by the pet store on Tuesday and were overcome with emotion, said CBC's Michael Dick.
A coroner was on site and it was quiet on the street, he said.
A small shrine to the victims has been started outside the shop. It already includes several teddy bears and candles.
The local pharmacy, Jean Coutu, has set up a donation bin to help raise money for the boys' funerals.
Citizens want to know what happened, said the deputy mayor.
"You don't expect that to happen in a town like Campbellton or in any town in Canada, so it’s a real tragedy, it’s unbelievable," said Comeau.
"We are going to have to deal with the consequences now in regards to that business and what we will do."
Comeau said he was part of an inspection of Reptile Ocean two years ago when he was a volunteer firefighter.
"Everything seemed to be you know, legal, OK, legitimate and everything else. So something happened on that night for the snake to escape and we’ll certainly go and look at the reasons because the death of these two kids certainly can not go in vain."
He said he was surprised to learn there was an apartment above the pet store.
"That's something we will be looking at through our bylaws. The RCMP want them this morning in regards to the legality of that business."
Recent New Brunswick laws allow the sale of non-venomous snakes up to three metres long.
Laws regulating the types and sizes of snakes allowed as pets vary across Canada, changing from one community to the next.
In Campbellton, the bylaws allowed for a "zoo" at Reptile Ocean, said Comeau.
"During school time a lot of kids would go there with their teachers and visit all of the reptiles he had. Apparently he sold some smaller reptiles and food for the reptiles, so it was allowed. Knowing what we know today, I don’t know if we would have allowed it, but you know it’s always things like that that happen and then you know you question yourself," he said.
"We will be looking at all those avenues and everything else to make sure things like that don't happen again and make sure the neighbours, the public are safe."
Complies with zoning bylaw
Reptile Ocean is in accordance with the city's zoning bylaw, which stipulates buildings in the downtown core must house a business on the main floor.
Dwellings commonly occupy the second floor, as was the case at 2 Pleasant St.
The building's primary use is listed as institutional. It is registered as a reptile zoo charging admission for educational purposes.
Minutes from the Restigouche Planning District Commission’s Feb. 21, 1996, meeting describe the approval of Jean-Claude Savoie’s request to alter the use of his property to "institutional."
The minutes also describe Savoie’s business plan.
“Mr. Savoie has a collection of reptiles which he would like to display for educational purposes," the minutes state. "He will charge admission and in return, educate people about the species which he has on display.”
Savoie also needed to get permission to put signs above the second-storey windows of the building to advertise the reptile zoo.
“It should be noted that Mr. Savoie has had an inspection done on the premises by the Provincial Fish and Wildlife Agency and has received a most favourable evaluation and will provide a copy of the issued operating permit as soon as he receives it,” the minutes continue.
Savoie’s requests were granted without any debate, according to the minutes.
There is no discussion in the minutes of any danger to the upstairs apartment or its residents.
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