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Canada ‘It’s very, very puzzling’: Snake expert mystified by New Brunswick python attack

In this Monday Aug. 5, 2013 photo, Royal Canadian Mounted Police work at the scene of a fatal python attack at Reptile Ocean exotic pet store in Campbellton, New Brunswick. Two young boys were killed by a python snake as they slept in an apartment above the store.

AP

A leading African snake expert is expressing surprise at an attack by a python that left two New Brunswick boys dead.

Pythons seeking food "always bite first" before constricting their prey with their coils, said Johan Marais, raising the question of how the snake killed the brothers without anyone hearing screams in the apartment where they were having a sleepover.

"If it grabs a kid, you're going to have more than enough time to scream. You cannot be asleep and be bitten by a python and strangled. That's impossible. You're going to wake up instantly," said Mr. Marais, who has written several books on snakes and runs the African Snake Bite Institute.

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"It's very, very puzzling. Why did the second child not wake up when the first one was attacked by the python?"

However, Neil Ford, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Tyler who specializes in snake behaviour, said pythons that are in exploration mode can coil around people without biting them. He said it's theoretically possible that the snake wrapped around both boys at the same time.

"It could be that kind of an accident where the snake got in where the kids were and they were just something to hold onto. And then when the kids tried to get away, [it] squeezed tighter," he said. "Even a single adult would have a tough time uncoiling a large snake if it wanted to hold on."

Noah and Connor Barthe, ages 4 and 6, were found dead early Monday in an apartment above a reptile store owned by their friend's father. Police said the snake, a four-metre-long African rock python weighing about 45 kilograms, was living in the apartment. The animal escaped from its glass-walled enclosure, which has walls all the way up to the ceiling, through a vent in the ceiling and slithered around in the ventilation system.

Jean-Claude Savoie, owner of Reptile Ocean, said the snake fell through the ceiling of the living room, where Noah and Connor were sleeping. Asked by Global News whether he had heard anything, Mr. Savoie said: "No, that's the thing. They were sleeping and they never opened their eyes or nothing."

Mr. Savoie told Global that he only learned what had happened when he went to check on the boys on Monday morning. "At first, I didn't even realize. I thought they were sleeping until I seen the hole in the ceiling, everything had fallen and I turned the lights on and I seen this horrific scene."

In the past 100 years, Mr. Marais said experts had traced only three cases of human strangulation deaths by pythons in all of Africa. "It's an incredibly rare event," he said from Pretoria, South Africa. It would be even more unusual for two people to be killed in the same incident, he said.

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The RCMP is investigating the boys' deaths. No charges have been laid.

Autopsies on the boys were expected to be conducted Tuesday in Saint John.

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