Autopsies are scheduled Tuesday for two young New Brunswick boys killed by a python that reportedly escaped from a reptile store and slithered into a ventilation shaft and then into the room where they slept.
The two boys, aged five and seven, were killed by a large African rock python while sleeping over an apartment upstairs from Reptile Ocean in Campbellton, N.B., RCMP say.
The shocking attack has even snake experts baffled.
"It’s strange, I’m just trying to piece it together,” says Lee Parker, the facilities manager at Ontario reptile zoo Reptilia. “They don't go on killing sprees … it doesn't make sense to me."
"The [African rock python] is not overly aggressive, not any more aggressive than your larger-type snake,” says Jeff Reynolds, manager at Hamilton, Ont.'s Reptile Store. "I find it very bizarre that it would attack two [kids]."
Such deadly attacks aren’t unheard of, but are very rare. The last known fatal attack by an African rock python was in 2002, when a 20-metre long snake killed and swallowed a 10-year-old boy in Durban, South Africa. Three years earlier, a smaller rock python killed a three-year-old boy after escaping its enclosure in Centralia, Ill.
The species is the largest in Africa, sometimes growing as long as six metres.
RCMP said the Campbellton python measures between 3.5 and 4.5 metres, and weighs approximately 45 kg. 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 all over Canada, changing from one community to the next. Parker points to the example of Guelph, Ont., which allows non-venomous snakes up to three metres long, but nearby Richmond Hill prohibits any pythons or boa constrictors.
But even if your municipality allows them, Parker advises against buying these exotic, potentially deadly pets.
"We don't recommend people keep large snakes as pets because of the potential threats," he says. "Burmese pythons, anacondas, boa constrictors … these are dangerous pets."
He says some customers looking to buy snakes clearly don’t know what they’re getting into.
"I’ve turned people away," he says. "Parents come in and they just want to buy a snake to shut their kid up. I say, 'What if he loses interest, stops feeding it, will you take over?' and they say, 'No, we just want to keep him quiet.'
"Other people say they want one because it’s cool," he says. "They shouldn’t be buying a snake. And they can probably get one somewhere else, but I won’t sell to them."
Unprepared owners sometimes creates an ecological threat, as pet snakes are released into the wild and an unprepared ecosystem. The problem has recently arisen in the Florida Everglades, where the African rock python has established itself as an invasive species with no natural predators.
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Parker wants more owners to do their homework. "Definitely make sure you know what type, how big it's going to get," he cautions. "You always have to make sure you know what that animal's capabilities are, how strong it is."
He warns that many people underestimate snakes and the threat they can pose. Some owners tell him their snakes will sometimes lie down alongside them and he warns it’s not for companionship; the snake is sizing up a potential victim.
The most vital aspect of snake safety: don’t feed or handle one alone. Parker says a boa constrictor or python can quickly surprise its handler and knock them out with a squeeze around the head or neck, cutting off air and blood flow. Children are even more vulnerable, he warns, and shouldn’t be left alone with a snake under any circumstances.
Proper enclosures are crucial as well. Snakes are strong and wily, accustomed to creeping into small spaces, so a simple plastic container or box isn't sufficient, Parker says.
It's still not known how the Campbellton python escaped the store. The RCMP has launched a criminal investigation, but no charges have been laid.