Python experts vexed by questions about New Brunswick tragedy

Pathologist's report expected to shed more light on what happened to brothers, and why

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press)

Thicker than a man’s bicep and longer than two Shaquille O’Neals, an African rock python can survive on just two or three good meals a year. But when it does decide to eat—an antelope, perhaps, or maybe a monkey—the chosen meal has no chance. With fishhook fangs and a split-second strike, the snake snaps its prey, wraps itself into a tight coil, and never lets go. “It’s not suffocation,” says Johan Marais, a leading snake expert based in South Africa. “What they actually do is put pressure on the chest region and prevent the blood from going from one chamber of the heart to the other. They induce cardiac arrest.”

Then they swallow their supper whole.

It was that nasty breed of snake—an African rock python, 14 feet long and 99 lb.—that apparently slithered out of its glass aquarium this week and killed two beautiful little boys in Campbellton, N.B.: Connor Barthe, 6, and his four-year-old brother, Noah. They were spending a Sunday night at a friend’s second-floor apartment, sleeping side-by-side on the living-room floor. An exotic pet store owned by their pal’s dad was directly below them, but the giant reptile, supposedly locked up tight, wasn’t in the store. It was actually inside the apartment. “The snake was confined, in a closed area, in a glass cage,” said RCMP Sgt. Alain Tremblay. “It was specifically done for the snake. It went right up to the ceiling.”

What happened inside that living room has horrified the country, triggered countless headlines around the world, and left many Canadians asking the same question: Why does anyone need a massive, lethal snake as a household pet? (For the record, African rock pythons are illegal in New Brunswick, as they are in some other provinces, but that breach seems to have gone unnoticed at Reptile Ocean.) But as investigators continue to comb through the evidence—including the “crime scene,” as Tremblay described the apartment—other, far more troubling questions remain unanswered. For some who have spent their lives studying pythons, the story so far is almost unbelievable. “I’m really skeptical about what exactly happened,” Marais says. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

It appears, the Mounties say, that the snake escaped from its cage through a small hole in the ceiling, then slinked its way into a ventilation duct. Once over the living room, the duct gave way, sending a portion of the ceiling—and the huge snake—plummeting to the floor. Jean-Claude Savoie, the owner of the pet shop, told detectives he woke up shortly after 6 a.m. to check on the boys, only to stumble upon a “horrific scene”: two dead children, and his snake nearby. Apparently, Savoie’s pet crashing through the ceiling wasn’t enough to wake him up.

Neither, it seems, did any cries for help from the Barthe brothers. Snake expert John Kendrick, a manager at the Reptile Store in Hamilton, says a bite from an African rock python would jolt anyone from his slumber, screaming in unthinkable pain. “If a snake is going to constrict and coil, it’s biting first,” he says. “That’s what they do. They bite to hold and then immediately go into a spin to coil their prey.” Would one brother’s screams not have woken up the other? Or someone else inside the apartment? (Savoie’s son was also there, asleep in another room.) “I’ve gone through those same thoughts in my head,” Kendrick says.

Though extremely uncommon, African rock pythons do attack humans. In 1999, a three-year-old Illinois boy was squeezed to death after his dad’s snake escaped from its glass enclosure. Three years later, in Utah, a python managed to coil around a mother and daughter at the same time, only to be pried loose by quick-thinking police armed with a pair of scissors. But in most instances, however rare, the human target is a potential meal. The Barthe brothers, it appears, were not. “Snakes won’t kill people just for the hell of it,” Marais says. “There is no snake that has malice in it that would intentionally go out and kill people and waste energy on it.”

Kendrick, like his fellow experts, does not want to jump to conclusions. He will wait for the RCMP to finish its investigation before passing judgment. But he can’t fathom why a python would crush one boy, crush the other, and eat neither. “For a snake to just kill something and walk away from it, it’s very rare,” he says. “To finish killing one and go and kill another one—then go away—I wouldn’t even put that as odds of one in a million.”

A pathologist has performed autopsies on both boys, and a report is expected in the coming days. It is sure to shed more light on what happened to the brothers, and why. “This is not a standard case, and I readily admit that,” Sgt. Tremblay told a packed news conference. “It’s an absolute tragedy for the family, what has occurred.” One reporter asked if police are exploring the possibility that the snake may not be the culprit. “As police officers in this type of investigation, we try not to focus on only one thing,” Tremblay replied. “We try to get a complete overview of the scene. But at this point, we do believe the snake is involved.”
The experts, like everyone, are anxious for the proof.

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