Exotic animals and the dangers of living on the wild side

Herpetologists are largely responsible pet owners. But when something goes wrong, as we saw in Cambellton, the outcome can be catastrophic.

No one could have imagined the horror that unfolded last week when an African rock python strangled two young boys as they slept in the living room of a friend’s apartment in Cambellton, New Brunswick. The tragedy is beyond anyone’s worst nightmare.

Four-year-old Noah Barthe  and his six-year-old brother Connor were enjoying a sleep-over at their friend’s  home, son of the owner of Reptile Ocean pet store where the snake was housed. During the night, the 4.3-metre long, 45-kilogram snake escaped from its enclosure, slithered into the ventilation system then moved through the apartment above the pet store. The snake fell through the ceiling to the living room below where it killed the boys.

The extremely rare incident baffled even snake experts. While these snakes (the largest in Africa), have unpredictable temperaments, sharp teeth for gripping prey, and a body that is an immense muscle for coiling and constricting, reports of humans killed by pythons are rare. A 13-year-old boy was killed in 1979 by a snake of similar length to the one in New Brunswick and, in 1999, a three-year-old boy in Illinois was suffocated by an escaped 2.3-metre python.

Prime Minister Harper has promised to look into the incident and review Ottawa’s role in the regulation of exotic animals in Canada. Apparently, Environment Canada actually handed off this snake to Reptile Ocean in 2002 even though it was a banned species in New Brunswick. The snake had been found abandoned on the doorstep of the SPCA’s office in Moncton. Back then, the facility ran as a zoo but it was never an accredited zoo with the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

The confusion over the status of the facility and the transfer of a banned species by federal officials highlights glaring inadequacies in the management of these animals and facilities operating under the radar of provincial laws. In fact, some 27 banned animals, including some endangered ones, were removed from Reptile Ocean by officials from the provincial Department of Natural Resources as well as representatives from Magnetic Hill Zoo in Moncton and Indian River Reptile Zoo.

Snakes are talented Houdinis. If there’s the slightest way out of their containment they will find it. It’s a fact of life all diligent herpetologists prepare for when they have potentially dangerous animals in their care.

Laws in British Columbia to protect people from dangerous and exotic animals are among the best in Canada. After the tragic death of Tanya Dumstrey-Soos who was killed by a tiger in Bridge Lake near 100 Mile House in 2007, the provincial government enacted changes to the B.C. Wildlife Act to ban a long list of exotic species.

“It took a year to draft the new regulations from 2009 to 2010,” said former Minister of Environment Barry Penner. “(Now), B.C. has the best regulations for dealing with dangerous and exotic species. If there is anything we can do to find a positive response (to the tragedy in N.B.) is to remind people in B.C. that we have these requirements. If a member of the public believes a neighbour or someone living close by has a dangerous animal they can report it to the Conservation Officer Service. It is listed on the Ministry of Environment website (1-877-952-7277).”

Exotic animals can pose health risks to humans through transmission of bacteria, viruses and microbes as well venom for which no antivenom is readily available. Loose in the environment, they can create ecological havoc to native species through competition for resources, predation, diseases, and hybridization.

Herpetologists are largely responsible pet owners. But when something goes wrong, as we saw in Cambellton, the outcome can be catastrophic.