Reptile ownership laws questioned after N.B. children strangled by escaped python

Matthew Coutts
Daily Brew
Reptile ownership laws questioned after N.B. children strangled by escaped python

The death of two young children who died after a large python escaped from a pet store has prompted shock and outrage across the country, from people who wonder how a creature could have been allowed to inflict such tragedy.

And those who wonder about the suspect history of the pet store at the heart of the matter.

Noah Barthe, five, and Connor Barthe, seven, were sleeping over at their friend’s apartment last weekend when the snake escaped from the pet store downstairs and found its way into the apartment.

The apartment belongs to Jean-Claude Savoie, the owner of the Reptile Ocean pet store for the past 16 years. He said he considered Noah and Connor part of his family.

Savoie told Global News he found the python in his apartment the next morning. The two children were dead.

‘“I thought they were sleeping until I [saw] the hole in the ceiling. I turned the lights on and I [saw] this horrific scene,” he told the network. “[The snake] went through a ventilation system. I don’t understand how it did it. It went through the ceiling…and the snake fell through the living room from the ceiling.”

“I found the snake. It was in a hole underneath. I pinned him down and put him in a cage,” Savoie later added.

[ Related: Python strangles two young boys in New Brunswick ]

The RCMP has launched a criminal investigation into the deaths. A police statement reads:

The preliminary investigation has led police to believe that a large exotic snake had escaped its enclosure at the store sometime overnight, and got into the ventilation system, then into the upstairs apartment. It's believed the two boys were strangled by the snake.

Owning a python in New Brunswick is not illegal. But it appears Reptile Ocean was the subject of previous complains, and the city's public protective services said it will investigate the matter.

An "unsatisfied customer" previously launched a "Shut Down Reptile Ocean" petition, gathered 185 online signatures in five months, before the petition shut down.

By online petition standards, it can't exactly be called a victory. But the reasons behind the petition are considerably more troubling since news broke that a python escaped and killed two children.

The petition alleges that the pets are kept in deplorable conditions, with overcrowded and dirty pens, sickly and dying animals and uninterested staff.

The author also writes about buying a snake from the shop that would not eat and, they later learned, had a broken back.

"The way his animals are treated is not right," the petition reads. "And I will fight against them till something is done. Sick animals should not be around healthy ones. They should not  even be up for adoption. I am disgusted by that place and will no longer step a feet in there ever again."

Campbellton deputy mayor Ian Comeau told CBC News the city did not receive the complaints at the time they were made, but they would be checking into it now that it has come to light.

Campbellton bylaws allow for a "zoo" at Reptile Ocean, although it is unclear whether having an apartment above the store is up to standard.

One thing that is clear, for better or worse, is that python ownership is entirely legal in New Brunswick. The province relaxed its laws about reptile ownership in 2009, allowing the sale of non-poisonous snakes up to three-metres long.

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Elsewhere in the country, python ownership laws are a patchwork of rules and regulations.

The B.C. government strengthened its wildlife laws in 2010 to outlaw the ownership of any snake longer than three metres in length. Snakes under than length require a permit to keep as pets.

Earlier this year, Manitoba passed new reptile pet bylaws banning the ownership of large lizards as well as venomous snakes (even if they are de-venomized), and any pythons or anaconda longer than two metres.

Alberta similarly bans the ownership of various types of large snakes, including African pythons like the one believed to be involved in the New Brunswick incident.

But in most cases, exceptions to the rule are available. And in Ontario, the bylaws are left in the hands of various cities, making it even more complicated.

Melissa Matlow, spokeswoman for the World Society for the Protection of Animals in Canada, told the Globe and Mail that the patchwork of rules does not go far enough and that pythons should be banned outright.

“They don’t make good pets, period,” she told the newspaper.

“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 you any knowledge to care for them properly.”

Don’t expect the debate over python ownership to go away quietly. The sudden and terrible death of children so young will have the public questioning the benefits of keeping such cold-blooded creatures as pets.

But before we get to law changes, a town will mourn. Noah and Connor Barthe were taken from their family far too soon, in random and chaotic fashion.

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