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Connor and Noah Barthe, aged 7 and 5, are believed to have been killed by a python that escaped a pet store in Campbelton, N.B. They were found dead on Monday Aug. 5, 2013. This is a recent photo from their mother's Facebook page. (Facebook)
Connor and Noah Barthe, aged 7 and 5, are believed to have been killed by a python that escaped a pet store in Campbelton, N.B. They were found dead on Monday Aug. 5, 2013. This is a recent photo from their mother's Facebook page. (Facebook)

Python attacks in New Brunswick lead to questions over exotic animal ownership Add to ...

A vigil was held Wednesday night in Campbellton, N.B., for the two young brothers believed to have been killed this week by a pet python.

The deaths devastated the small northern New Brunswick city, and prompted concerns about the ownership of dangerous animals as pets and putting the spotlight on Canada’s patchwork of regulations. The vigil began at 8 p.m. (AT).

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Six-year-old Connor Barthe and his brother, Noah, 4, were believed to have been killed by an African rock python overnight Sunday while they were sleeping over at a friend’s apartment in their hometown of Campbellton.

The snake, originally believed to have slithered its way up from an exotic pet store beneath the apartment, was actually in a custom-built glass enclosure not far from where the brothers slept, RCMP Sergeant Alain Tremblay said Tuesday.

Reptile experts were puzzled by the behaviour of the large python, a snake that is illegal in New Brunswick, but doesn’t normally attack humans.

One theory of why the snake may have attacked the children is that it was lured by their scent because they had played with farm animals that day and likely smelled like prey, a reptile expert said Tuesday.

The founder and co-owner of Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo in Ottawa said snakes such as the African rock python don’t visually recognize their prey, they go by scent.

“If a snake sees an animal moving, giving off heat and smells like a goat, what is it? It’s a goat,” said Paul Goulet.

Animal-welfare officials are pointing out concerns over the jumble of provincial regulations and municipal bylaws on keeping dangerous exotic animals as pets.

Enforcement of the rules is lax, they are a danger to others and the animals are often mistreated, one expert says. Reports of pet owners and others being hurt are not uncommon. In 2007, a British Columbia woman was mauled by her fiancé’s pet Bengal tiger, and snakes have got loose before.

The tragic case in New Brunswick also puts the spotlight on the illegal trade in these types of animals – believed to be equal to or more than the legal trade. However, it’s difficult to prove whether an animal was bred in captivity or was poached and smuggled in illegally, says Melissa Matlow, with the World Society for the Protection of Animals in Canada.

Some experts believe the reptile trade in Canada is significant, with thousands of animals traded every year.

“You can have legislation in place, but if you do not have an educated enforcement group that knows about reptiles and who knows how these animals should be dealt with … that can lead to lapses in enforcement,” said Rob Laidlaw, the executive director of Zoocheck Canada Inc., a Toronto-based non-profit animal-welfare organization.

New Brunswick’s Department of Natural Resources says the African rock python is not legal in the province unless the owner has a permit from the department.

Although accredited zoos, such as Magnetic Hill Zoo near Moncton, are allowed to have these types of animals, permits are never issued to keep an illegal exotic animal as a pet, said department spokesman Steve Benteau.

The snake’s owner, Jean-Claude Savoie, did not have a permit for his African rock python, according to a source close to the investigation. The four-metre, 45-kilogram snake was euthanized and sent to Fredericton for a necropsy to look for clues as to what happened.

Mr. Savoie also owns Reptile Ocean, an exotic animal store in Campbellton. The upstairs apartment is where the boys were having a sleepover with his son, who was not harmed. Mr. Savoie was also there.

He has been questioned briefly by investigators, who are treating this as a criminal investigation. He will meet with them again for more questioning, said Sgt. Tremblay said in a news conference Tuesday.

The boys were killed some time between Saturday night and Sunday morning in an attack that experts on the behaviour of snakes have called extremely unusual. Connor and Noah were sleeping on a mattress in the living room, according to Sgt. Tremblay, when the snake is believed to have broken out of its glass enclosure by slithering through a hole in the ceiling and into the ventilation system. As it made its way over the living room area the duct gave way and the snake is believed to have fallen to the floor.

Sgt. Tremblay did not have an answer for why the noise of the large snake falling did not wake up anyone in the apartment. He described the enclosure as “like an aquarium,” which was specially built for the snake. The glass walls, he said, went right up to the ceiling but “inside was a small hole that was connected to a ventilation system and the snake was able to get in through that.”

The snake’s enclosure was on the same floor as the boys and was “fairly close” to them, said Sgt. Tremblay. The snake was not in the store as the RCMP had originally suggested.

Mr. Savoie found the boys and the snake in the same room, police say.

Autopsies were performed on the boys Tuesday. Sgt. Tremblay would not say what condition the bodies were in when they were found. He would also not rule out other suspects.

“We try to get a complete overview of the scene, he said, “But at this point we do believe the snake is involved. We still have to wait for the pathologist report but as far as the investigation is going it’s going toward that. … The pathologist report is going to help us understand what happened.”

The two families were very close. David Rose, the boys’ great-uncle told reporters about their last day on Sunday when they shopped for candy with Mr. Savoie, played at his family farm and just had a “super day.”

Animal welfare expert Rob Laidlaw, meanwhile, says that British Columbia has the most stringent regulations governing exotic pet ownership. It significantly tightened its regulations in 2009 after a woman was killed by her boyfriend’s pet tiger. As for the rest of the country, he says it’s a “bit of a mishmash.”

“Typically, what happens is the real meat and potatoes of the issue have to be dealt with on a municipal level,” he said. “So, many urban municipalities across the country ... they pass bylaws prohibiting the keeping of certain kinds of animals but many municipalities in Canada don’t have those bylaws or there is no enforcement so that obviously allows people to keep dangerous animals.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

Follow on Twitter: @janetaber1

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