Why Would a Python Strangle Two Kids?

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An African rock python on a dirt road.
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As authorities await autopsy results on Connor and Noah Barthe, two young Canadian boys apparently strangled this week by a pet African rock python on the loose, reptile experts are puzzling over the deaths.

"African rocky pythons are big, dangerous snakes, but the circumstances in this case seem unusual to me," Max Nickerson, curator of the Florida Museum of Natural History's Division of Herpetology, told Discovery News. Nickerson has extensive experience with this type of snake, having help care for one for some time in the past.

"They never tame down and are always a bit of a challenge," he continued. "They are fully capable of swallowing small individuals and are definitely not pet material, but it's hard to conjecture what exactly happened in this case."

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Preliminary information released by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police holds that the python escaped from the exotic pet store Reptile Ocean, Inc. in New Brunswick.

Owner Jean-Claude Savoie, who kept the nearly 15-foot-long snake as a personal pet, said that the snake escaped through a ventilation system, fell into the living room from the ceiling, and then apparently strangled the two boys to death. The boys were the children of a friend, and were said to be sleeping over at Savoie's apartment near the shop.

David Rodrigue, director of Montreal's Ecomuseum Zoo, said that pythons usually only go into strangulation mode when they are stimulated by hunger and prey odor. He said that the situation with the boys was highly improbable.

Nickerson agreed, but wondered what the boys might have been handling before they went to sleep. He shared a story about a yellow-head reticulated python that belonged to a friend of his who also raised rabbits. Due to the aggressiveness of the snake, no one was to be alone when feeding the snake. If the python detected the smell of rabbit, it would strike. Ammonia was kept nearby, as snakes will tend to release their bite after smelling this potent liquid.

Nickerson also said that bright light could alarm snakes.

"They will also perceive grabbing from behind as a threat," he added.

It remains unclear if the boys attempted to grab the snake, if they were handling other animals before going to bed, or if they turned a light on. It could be that a "perfect storm" of circumstances led to their deaths, given that the boys were so close to a pet shop, but the official investigation is still underway.

The condition of the snake before the killings also remains unknown. A petition created last year at thepetitionsite.com has been gathering signatures to "Shut Down Reptile Ocean." The creator, only identified as "Unsatisfied customer," wrote that "humidity is disgusting for all the animals." The individual goes on to mention that ill and dead animals were observed in the store.

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It is doubtful that the African rock python was starving to death, though. Nickerson said these snakes feed infrequently. One specimen reportedly fasted for over 2.5 years, according to a University of Michigan Animal Diversity Web fact sheet.

Reptile Ocean had its Facebook page shut down today, but before it did so, the store issued an apology that read: "deepest sympathies goes out to the family of the children. a terrible accident without a meaning."

In early 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned the "importation and interstate transportation" of African rock pythons, Burmese pythons, and the yellow anaconda. Individuals in the United States and Canada, however, can still keep the snakes with special permits.

Reports issued by the United States Geological Survey indicate that non-native populations of such snakes could exist in the wild. South Florida, for example, has an estimated population "in the tens of thousands" of Burmese pythons. There could also be a breeding group of northern African pythons in Florida.

The snake most associated with unprovoked human fatalities in the wild is not the African rock python, but the reticulated python. According to Catherine Puckett of the USGS, "The situation with human risk is similar to that experienced with alligators: attacks in the wild are improbable but possible."