Strangulation of Sleeping Boys Puts Spotlight on Pythons

An escaped python allegedly strangled two sleeping boys in Canada.

The escaped snake is believed to be an African rock python, a type of constrictor known to kill humans.

The deaths of two young boys found strangled in New Brunswick, Canada, early Monday morning have been blamed on a snake that escaped from an exotic pet store located beneath the apartment where they were staying.

The snake has been captured and is in police possession, according to a statement by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Police speculate that the serpent escaped its enclosure at the Reptile Ocean store sometime overnight, got into the ventilation system, and then into the upstairs apartment where the young boys, reportedly brothers aged five and seven years old, were staying over with the son of the store's owner, Jean-Claude Savoie.

Savoie told Global News that he made the horrific discovery when he went to check on the children in the morning.

"My body is in shock. I don't know what to think," he said. "I thought they were sleeping until I [saw] the hole in the ceiling. I turned the lights on and I [saw] this horrific scene."

According to the National Post, the escaped snake was an African rock python—a type of constrictor known to kill humans—that was 14 to 16 feet (4.2 to 4.9 meters) long.

National Geographic asked Ian Recchio, the curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Los Angeles Zoo, about the feeding behaviors of pythons and how often they attack humans.

Is this type of behavior unusual for pythons?

It's very rare that pythons kill humans, but not unheard of. It occasionally happens if the circumstances are just right. Oftentimes, it's just kind of a perfect storm where you get a big hungry snake in close proximity to humans.

But humans are not normally part of these snakes' natural prey.

What species of python are known to kill people?

It's usually reticulated pythons, African rock pythons, and occasionally big Burmese pythons.

Do pythons only strangle prey that they intend to eat?

Usually, if they kill something, it's because they're going to eat it. They don't exert that energy unless they're going to feed on what they're killing.

In past cases of pythons killing humans, are the victims usually children? Or have adults been killed, too?

There's been some recorded killings of full-grown adults, but it's exceedingly rare. Usually it's kids.

What does the constricting motion of a python feel like?

A snake is made up primarily of bone and muscles ... that are extraordinarily strong. It can be startling just holding a small or medium-sized constrictor and having it just hold onto your arm to keep itself balanced.

A lot of people who hold constrictors think [the snakes] are trying to squeeze them and hurt them, but really they're just trying to hold on.

Is strangulation by a python a quick death?

It doesn't take long. Some people have had pet pythons that wrapped around their necks and cut off circulation, and they pass out and subsequently died from suffocation.

In addition to strangling their prey, do constrictors also bite?

When pythons and boas are killing prey, they use a kind of ambush technique in which they'll jump out at you and strike at you and grab you with their teeth. They'll seize the prey item with their teeth and simultaneously wrap their coil around it and squeeze. And when the victim exhales, that's the time they squeeze a little bit harder to the point where you can't really get a breath anymore.

Do pythons only strangle prey when they're hungry? Or will they do it to defend themselves as well?

When they're defending themselves, they'll either try to bite and crawl away or crawl away first. When they go through all the trouble and exert all the energy to bite something and constrict it, it's because they're hungry generally.

Do pythons typically go after prey that are of a similar size to themselves?

Snakes are opportunists. If they're hungry enough, they may go after prey that's literally too large to swallow in some cases. Snakes have been known to swallow adult male antelope with horns and all and die in the process [see video]. So they'll take whatever they can get if they're desperately hungry.

Is there anything that a person who finds themselves being constricted by a python can do to escape?

This is a horrible tragedy. I think it's a bad idea to keep large constrictors unless it's in a professional setting and you have experience with the species. It's a big responsibility, and this is the type of thing that can happen when you keep exotic animals and they're not secured.

This Q&A has been edited.

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