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The question: I love exotic animals and I've wanted a python for a long time. I have a few questions: I am surprised that a python killed two children in the recent tragedy in New Brunswick, and I am confused why they had to kill the snake. Friends tell me I shouldn't want a python as a pet after this. What do you think?
The answer: I'm glad you asked these questions – python ownership is an incredibly sensitive issue, and you raise multiple issues that need to be addressed individually. Whether pythons make a good pet – and whether killing humans is in their nature are great questions to ask before you decide one way or the other.
First, let's deal with ownership. Having a pet – any kind of living creature – is a big responsibility. But owning a potentially dangerous animal, whether that's a dog, snake, or a tarantula is a responsibility that requires an immense amount of planning, education, and controls. If you're not prepared for this, please consider a gold fish. (Also: investigate the by-laws in your city, as they vary widely.)
I understand that snakes are fascinating – it's great that you have a deep appreciation for the creatures. I adore ostriches and pumas, but would never allow one in my home. You can read all about the animals you're mesmerized by online and in libraries. Just because you love something, doesn't mean you should own it.
To your question on what makes a good pet? I take a pretty absolute stance. For me, the deal breaker is not their potential to harm (dogs can be deadly!) but it's about the creature's ability to bond with me. If I can't have a mutual, emotional relationship, I see no reason in keeping it. So for me, dogs are the best; cats are debatable and bunnies completely unacceptable. Snakes? Gerbils? Iguanas? No, no and no.
As we've seen recently, these creatures can cause unimaginable horror. There are are no words, and certainly none in a pet column, to address what the family, friends and community of Campbellton, N.B. are feeling after an African rock python strangled two boys to death.
I called reptile guru Paul Raymond Goulet in Ottawa, the Ray of the city's famous Little Ray's Reptile Zoo, to find out why people own these creatures, and to answer your question about their nature.
"The same way people like model airplanes, that's something they love," Goulet says, adding snakes are very low-maintenance pets. "I have no idea why someone wants to spend their night going through a stamp collection, but that person has no idea why someone wants to spend their night holding a snake."
Still, I can't equate stamps or airplanes to pet ownership.
To your friends' concern about pythons killing humans, Goulet says any python will constrict something it smells as prey. The python in New Brunswick was no murderous beast, as the boys may have smelled like small farm animals after visiting a zoo that day.
Goulet calls it "the perfect storm of circumstances" and says the incident is the definition of a freak accident. "That these things would all fall in line. ... That there would be an open gate, and little kids who smell like prey."
In fact, he says, pythons are the most widely owned snake in North America – and they would not usually consider a human being as food.
Human deaths by pythons are incredibly rare: The last human killed by an African rock python was more than a decade ago, and in the United States, the Humane Society cites there have been 17 people killed by constrictor snake related incidents since 1978.
As for your shock surrounding the death of the New Brunswick python – along with four alligators seized at that location – I can't stand it either, to be honest. Euthanizing all of those animals seemed like a strange, misguided attempt at justice.
But Goulet understands the decision to euthanize the snake: "You have to be able to put yourselves in the place of the authorities that are dealing with the situation. What happened is so rare that they're trying to figure out how it happened." Officials have said, in addition, that there was no zoo willing to take in these creatures.
The python was just being a python – but regardless, in my opinion, these creatures aren't house pets.
Not because they pose a huge, insurmountable danger to humans – but because it's a snake that can't love you in return.