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RCMP work at the scene of a fatal Python attack on Monday Aug. 5, 2013 at Reptile Ocean in Campbellton, N.B. Two young boys were killed by a python snake as they slept in an apartment above an exotic pet store.The Canadian Press

Two young boys in northern New Brunswick are dead after a python, believed to have escaped from its cage at an exotic animal store, slithered through ventilation ducts into an upstairs apartment and killed them some time during the night, according to Campbellton, N.B., RCMP.

What began as a summer sleepover at a friend's apartment turned tragic as police arrived shortly after 6:30 a.m. to find the boys, five and seven years old, dead. It is believed they were brothers, but RCMP would not confirm this. Some residents said the boys were killed as they were sleeping.

The snake is in RCMP possession; an autopsy is to be performed on the boys' bodies Tuesday in Saint John. The police investigation continues. No charges have been laid.

The horrible events have raised questions across the country about the ownership and sale of exotic animals, and whether tougher regulations are needed.

The news of the early morning discovery brought immediate grief and horror to the small community of Campbellton – and to friends of the boys' mother. The city of nearly 7,500 sits on the shores of the Restigouche River; forestry and tourism are the city's main industries.

"I just came from Campbellton … it just doesn't make sense," wrote a friend of one of the boys' mother on her Facebook page. Others weighed in, expressing their sadness, saying that words could not describe the incident and calling it "insane."

"Everybody is talking about it. It's very sad," said Stephanie Bernatchez, who lives just outside of Campellton and has met the boys and their mother a few times. Deputy mayor Ian Comeau told CBC the "city is in shock."

The large exotic snake is believed to have come from Reptile Ocean, an establishment in Campbellton that has exotic fish and reptiles. Its Facebook page, which has now been taken down, featured pictures of colourful fish and other reptiles. The establishment has three employees and has been in operation for nearly 17 years.

A 1996 report of an investigation of zoos in the Maritimes by Zoocheck Canada Inc. and the World Society for the Protection of Animals noted that Reptile Ocean had just opened up earlier that year. It listed the owner then as Jean-Claude Savoie, who was described in the report as a "young enthusiastic amateur collector who has only recently embarked on this commercial venture."

This is not the first time that a large snake has escaped its enclosure. Last summer in Jonquière, Que., a Boa constrictor got loose. And according Melissa Matlow, spokeswoman for the World Society for the Protection of Animals in Canada, a Brampton man was killed in 1992 by his pet python.

"They don't make good pets, period. They should be banned," she said. These snakes can be between six and seven metres long and weigh 200 pounds.

Ms. Matlow said there is only a patchwork of regulations in the country – municipal and provincial – governing how to deal with these types of exotic animals.

"I don't think any province really has a good system in place to prevent people from owning these animals. You usually don't have to show that you have any knowledge to care for them properly," she said.

Bruce Dougan is the manager of New Brunswick's Magnetic Hill Zoo, which has about a dozen big snakes, including a Burmese python. His is a fully accredited zoo, which is inspected every five years. It keeps its snakes in locked enclosures. He explained that the enclosure is not opened unless the building is "locked down."

"There is always a door shut after one is opened with animals such as this," he said. "It's a double-door system so they cannot escape."

He says that pythons need to be fed every 10 days to two weeks, depending on their size. He says there are so many variables and details not known about the snake involved in the incident, including its size and the size of the food it was being fed. Snakes can be fed pigeons or rats or rabbits.

"Was this a snake that was being ready to be fed the next day and was hungry? I don't know," said Mr. Dougan.

With a report from Renata D'Aliesio