Wednesday, August 14, 2013


I started out to write a blog entry about pythons in general, but while doing my in-depth research, I was shocked to learn of a horrible event in New Brunswick, Canada last week.  And what happened was that two young boys were killed by an African rock python while they were sleeping.  I will tell you more about this event in a minute, but first I will tell you a little about African rock pythons.

Drawing by Sir Andrew Smith, 1840

There are seven species of pythons, and the scientific name of the African rock python is Python sebae.  This snake is the largest one in all of Africa, and it is one of the five largest snake species in the world.  The other four are the green anaconda, reticulated python, Burmese python, and amethystine python.  African rock pythons can be as long as 20 feet and weigh up to 120 pounds.  You can find them in all types of habitats, ranging from forests to desert-like places.  But there will usually be a source of water nearby.

African rock python in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve
Photo by Michel Denis-Huot, Hemis/Corbis

Female pythons lay eggs, and they try to lay them in a place where the eggs will stay warm.  The mother snake coils herself around the eggs to protect them, and if they start getting cold, she makes them warmer by shivering.  As soon as the baby snakes hatch, they go off on their own, with no thanks to their mom.

Killing the prey

Pythons hunt by hiding someplace and then ambushing their prey.  Their bite is not poisonous, but the fangs hold the prey until the snake can coil itself around the animal it has caught.  Then the python keeps making the coils tighter until the prey can't breathe anymore and it dies.  The kinds of things pythons like to eat are small mammals, warthogs, herons, and antelopes.  After killing and swallowing a huge meal such as an antelope, a python might not need to eat again for a year.  Usually they will not attack a human unless they are startled or cornered.

Swallowing the prey

You can buy most kinds of pythons in the exotic pet trade, and some of them, like for example, the Burmese python, supposedly make pretty nice pets -- if you like scaly, slithery kinds of pets.  But African rock pythons do not make good pets because they are usually grouchy and vicious.

Digesting the prey

So here's what happened last week in New Brunswick, in a town called Campbellton.  Connor and Noah Barthe, who were seven and five, spent the day with a neighbor boy and his father.  They went to the family farm and petted the animals and rode on the tractor and had a lot of fun.  Then they slept over with their friend, who lives in an apartment above a pet shop called Reptile Ocean, because his dad is the owner of the shop.

Connor and Noah Barthe
Photo:  Rex Features
During the night, an African rock python who lived in the shop got out of its floor-to-ceiling glass tank somehow.  Then the snake crawled up through the ductwork to the ceiling of the apartment above, and it dropped down out of the vent.  When the pet shop owner got up in the morning, he found out that Noah and Connor had been squeezed to death by the python.

Since it is rare for pythons to attack humans, nobody is exactly sure why the boys got killed.  One theory is that because they had spent the day at the farm, they smelled like animals a python might like to eat, and the snake was just hungry.  But after killing the boys, it didn't try to eat them.

Photo:  Reuters
The Canadian Natural Resources Department has not said whether Reptile Ocean had a permit to own the python.  Since there is an investigation going on, they are not supposed to comment on things like that.  The python that killed the boys was euthanized, and so were four American alligators from Reptile Ocean, because there were no accredited zoos who could take them.  Twenty-three other reptiles were also seized by the Magnetic Hill Zoo in Moncton, N.B.

Nick Wright, who is a lawyer and executive director of Animal Justice Canada, said "There's no uncertainty that the African rock python is a species that should not be permitted to be kept in captivity in the way that it was."  And Kenneth Krysko, senior herpetologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville said, "I personally don't see why people need to have these things as pets -- they're not good pets and look at what ends up happening.  I was shocked to hear about this."

BBC Nature Wildlife

In the last few years, African rock pythons have been found in Florida, along with Burmese pythons and boa constrictors.  Probably the African rock pythons got there because some people bought them and then found out they weren't good pets, so they let them loose in the wild.  Anyway, none of these snake species are native to Florida or to the U.S., so it's a problem having them here.  All I can say is I hope they never slither their way up to Missouri!

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