Snake experts say the two Canadian brothers killed by an African rock python represent an extremely rare case, as the snakes do not hunt humans as prey.
Two Canadian boys who were killed by a 14-foot python while sleeping side-by-side died of asphyxiation, a coroner has ruled, as the tragic case continues to baffle snake experts.
"How that happens in a house, to two children, I just have a lot of questions," said Greg Graziana, a Florida python specialist who breeds ball pythons. "I can tell you this is extremely rare."
Python strangles, kills two children
Noah and Connor Barthe, 4 and 6 years old, were found on the floor lifeless Tuesday morning in their neighbor's home in Campbellton, New Brunswick. The 99-pound African rock python at the focus of the investigation had apparently escaped from its glass enclosure into the ventilation system, falling through the ceiling into the area where the brothers were sleeping, according to police. The boys' mother had previously posted photos of the pair cleaning her neighbor's snake enclosure on her Facebook page.
African rock pythons are among the largest constrictor snakes, capable of growing up to 25 feet long.
Graziana said it might be difficult for a single victim to call for help if a constrictor begins to coil itself around. While the animals don't crush or break bones, he explained, they wrap tighter around a victim with each breath and can induce cardiac arrest.
"Every time the victim exhales, they tighten a little tighter so they can't inhale…you can't scream, you don't have the air in your lungs," he said.
EXPERT: SNAKES DO NOT HUNT HUMANS
Graziana and other experts agree that it's highly unusual for a constrictor to prey on any kind of primate because they are difficult to consume, but cases like this are not unheard of.
In 2002, a 20-foot-long African rock python killed and then swallowed a 10-year-old boy in Durban, South Africa. In 1999, a 7 1/2-foot-long pet African rock python in Centralia, Ill., strangled a three-old boy to death.
Jim Harrison, director of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, has handled African rock pythons and said he's certainly seen the snakes perform a "dual constriction," holding two items at one time.
African rock pythons don't make for good pets, he said, because they're "nippy" and tend to be "nasty as far as disposition," but he agreed that it's not natural for any kind of python to perceive a human as a viable food source — especially since snakes tend to swallow their prey whole, and the two children were left alone.
"Could these snakes possibly do it? Yes. Will these snakes hunt people down and kill them? No. Snakes do not predate on humans," he said.
He said there have been instances of Americans being killed by rock pythons "because people made a mistake, they handled the snake and were handling food, and snakes work on a sense of smell."
Possible food sources, such as the scent of rodents or rabbits on hands, could confuse a python and lead it to believe a human is a meal.
CBC News reported that the boys spent their last day on a farm in close contact with animals.
Professor Emily Taylor, director of a California Polytechnic State University lab that studies physiological ecology of reptiles, said that she, like "most snake experts," is "extremely surprised, even skeptical, that this tragic event could actually have happened."
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