African Rock Python Kills Two Canadian Boys
African Rock Python
Overview of the news story
A ~100 lb, ~14' long African Rock Python (Python sebae) escaped from its custom-built glass aquarium-like enclosure (that reached the ceiling) that was located in the apartment above the pet store, Reptile Ocean Inc. (located in Campbellton, New Brunswick, Canada), during the night of 8/4/13.
It then infiltrated the ventilation system (through a vent in the ceiling at the top of its cage) and presumably coiled up in a weak spot in the ceiling of the living room, causing the ventilation ducts and/or ceiling to collapse atop of two young brothers, Noah Barthe (4 years old) and Connor Barthe (6 years old), that were sleeping over at a friend's place.
Reportedly, the snake, being frightened by the cave-in, wrapped itself around both of the children and strangled them to death. The friend they were visiting (son of Jean-Claude Savoie, the pet shop owner) was alive and well in the nearby room. The bodies of the two boys were found by the police at 6:30 am on 8/5/13.
The snake, itself, was found hiding in a hole, secured within a cage, and then seized by the police. Sometime later, the python was euthanized by a veterinarian (with the permission of its owner) in order to definitively identify the species and determine why it "attacked" the children.
*UPDATE 8/7/13: The snake has been confirmed to be an African Rock Python that was in good health. *UPDATE 8/11/13: Approximately 27 other (illegal) animals have been confiscated from Reptile Ocean Inc. by the New Brunswick DNR, with 4 of those being large American Alligators that were subsequently euthanized.
*UPDATE 8/13/13: The 23 confiscated animals that were not euthanized included green anacondas, iguanas, sulcata tortoises, 2 dwarf caimans, and various other crocodilians, leaving hundreds of other animals in the store. The 23 confiscated animals were given to zoos in Ontario and New Brunswick.
*UPDATE 8/16/13: The two boys were sleeping on a mattress on the floor about eight feet away from the snake's enclosure. Coincidentally, they had pictures taken of them cleaning that same enclosure, back when it held a Green Anaconda. Although the Green Anaconda never escaped the enclosure (possibly due to the fact that they are great swimmers, but not good climbers), the African Rock Python obviously did.
It turns out that the python was able to enter the vent in the ceiling of its enclosure because of the ventilation fan having been removed some time ago (likely because it had broken down), but never replaced. Therefore, we are led to believe that there was a hole in the ceiling where the fan used to be, permitting the snake easy access to the ventilation ducts.
*UPDATE 8/27/13: The owner of Reptile Ocean, Jean-Claude Savoie, originally greeted police while he was nervously pacing outside of the pet shop with blood on his hands and shorts. Although one might assume that the blood resulted from his efforts to re-capture the snake (due to the python biting him), he reported to police that the snake was still "on the loose" in the apartment.
He found the snake in an "enraged" state within a hole in the apartment and had difficultly capturing it. The snake coiled itself around his arm upon capture. Mr. Savoie was charged with criminal negligence causing death. Twenty dead animals found inside freezers in the pet shop (likely having been recently deceased and/or used for food) were thawed out and buried. They included a Yellow Anaconda, two Reticulated Pythons, and 17 Fly River Turtles. A Hawksbill Sea Turtle wall-mounted trophy was also confiscated by the DNR.
*UPDATE 2/6/15: The RCMP have arrested Jean-Claude Savoie on 2/5/15 in Montreal, but charges have not yet been filed. Source.
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Was the snake even legal?
Contrary to prior reports, DNR spokesman Steven Benteau was CORRECT in stating that the New Brunswick DNR does not allow that particular species to exist within that province, as its species name does not appear on their list of acceptable species. African Rock Pythons require a special permit to own, per section 38 of their Fish and Wildlife Act. So, the snake was, in fact, not legal for Jean-Claude Savoie to own without a permit.
It may not have been entirely Mr. Savoie's fault, however, since he had owned the snake for 10 years and the law prohibiting African Rock Pythons was only passed in 2009 (meaning that the snake should have technically been "grandfathered in" under the new legislation). Interestingly, he was originally given the python by Environment Canada, which acquired the snake in 2002 when it was dropped off at the Moncton SPCA. *Section Revised and Updated 8/13/13.
What actually killed the boys?
Was it the debris from the collapse of the ceiling that crushed/killed them? Or was it the debris combined with the weight of the big snake? Or did the snake physically wrap around the kids and strangle them to death? The boys were reported to have played with farm animals (horses, llamas, goats, dogs, and cats) earlier in the day (at the Savoie family's farm), so it is possible that the snake was hungry and perceived them as prey, resulting in their deaths.
Large snakes are often capable of wrapping around and constricting two prey items simultaneously. The snake was never handled by anyone else but its owner, so that factor may have played a role as well. Hopefully the autopsy performed on 8/6/13 will provide a definitive answer to these questions.
*UPDATE 8/7/13: Preliminary autopsy results indicate that the children died of asphyxiation, but we will have to wait for the full report to be certain of exactly what killed them.
*UPDATE 8/27/13: Did the collapsed ventilation pipe and busted ceiling tiles kill the kids? Or does the blood on the pet shop owner's hands/shorts indicate that he actually killed the boys?
How do snakes size up prey?
Information about pythons and the danger they pose
African Rock Pythons (Python sebae) are the largest species of snake in Africa, growing to be ~20' long and ~200 lbs. They are a large species of nonvenomous (learn the difference between venomous and poisonous) constrictors. Lee Parker, the facilities manager at Reptilia (the largest reptile zoo in Canada; located in Vaughan, Ontario), claims that one should be cautious when a snake lies down next to them, since the snake is actually "sizing up" its next meal.
Unfortunately, there is as much truth to that statement as claiming that when a cat lies in your lap, it is planning to kill and eat you. Do snakes "size up" their prey in the wild by first lying down next to them? No, of course not! They can adequately ascertain whether or not they can consume a victim just by looking at them, just like most other animals. A snake lies down next to a person in order to "leech" body heat from them in an effort to properly regulate their own body temperature, not to eat them (learn about many other misconceptions about snakes).
That said, a snake may still act in fear for its life, choosing to neutralize a threat by any means, including constriction. This is in direct opposition to statements from the general curator at Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo (located in Ottawa in Ontario, Canada), Matt Korhonen; he claims that large constricting snakes don't constrict out of self-defense. Well, have you ever seen a snake special on TV where somebody captures a large constrictor?
The snake wrangler snatches the head and then tries to lift the body off of the ground. The snake almost immediately begins to coil around the person and apply pressure in an effort to convince the person to let go so that it can escape. So, if a snake feels threatened by a wriggling child, it may elect to kill them in an attempt to defend themselves. Does a snake kill people for the fun of it? No! It only does so if it feels threatened or as though it could actually consume them.
Could a ~100 lb snake find a ~50 lb child to be appetizing? Technically, yes! Large constrictors are sometimes capable of consuming something as heavy as they are, meaning that a 100 lb snake could theoretically consume 100 lb worth of food. Since large constrictors can stretch their mouths open an incredible amount, they are not often "gape-limited" predators, making them able to eat very large prey items like deer and even humans.
Any large constrictor snake over 9' long should never be handled by a lone adult, as that animal would have the capacity to overpower and kill its handler. Human deaths by large constrictors are incredibly rare. African Rock Pythons, however, are known to kill and eat humans on rare occasions.
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Does the death of these 2 boys warrant a python ban?
Should we ban pythons?
Does this incident mean that we should completely prohibit the private ownership of African Rock Pythons? No, of course not! It's like claiming that we should ban scissors because somebody used them to kill another person. Such things are safe as long as they are treated and used responsibly. We must encourage people to be especially careful with such large animals that pose a reasonable danger to human health.
Even then, we are reminded of the fact that snakes are particularly skilled escape artists. They are very strong, persistent, and intelligent beings that will find any weakness in their enclosure and monopolize upon it. So, banning an animal for doing what it does best and defending itself is not exactly the most appropriate action. Take dogs, for instance, which kill nearly three times more people in the U.S. than snakes do (source: CDC).
Does that mean that we should focus on banning dogs instead of pythons? No, of course not. We should encourage responsible pet care, handling, and containment, as opposed to outright banning of the potentially "dangerous" species in question. Please keep in mind that virtually anything can be dangerous if it is wielded irresponsibly...
So, why did this tragedy occur? Did the pet shop not take proper precautions in securing the snake in its cage? Was the snake just trying to hide in the ventilation system when it caused the ceiling to collapse on the children (potentially killing them)? Alternatively, did the python kill the boys in self-defense or because they smelled like farm animals and it wanted to eat them? Did the snake deserve to die as a result of its owner's irresponsibility?
There are many questions left unanswered, so let us refrain from making any snap-judgements until all of the facts are in our possession and we have the results of the autopsy. In addition, exercise caution when listening to advice about snakes from people that are "general curators" and "facilities managers" of zoos, as they are frequently NOT Herpetologists or snake experts.
As new information comes in, I will update/revise this page. Last update: 5:25 PM EST 2/6/15.
Give us your opinion!
Do you think that charges should be brought against the python owner for the deaths of the two boys?
How large constricting snakes acquire prey
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