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Rock Python (Python sebae) portrait, Tsavo National Park, Kenya

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

Photograph by Bruce Davidson/NPL/Minden Pictures

Ker Than

for National Geographic

Published August 6, 2013

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.

(See "Florida Hunt Captures 68 Invasive Snakes.")

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.

Follow Ker Than on Twitter.

nathan thomas banister
nathan thomas banister

well no because  for a saw it will take two hours to get through enough to get it off but hopefully you can hold your breath along because every time you breath it starts squessing harder

Gang Yang
Gang Yang

What if I stab the python with a stagger when it constricts me ?Can I escape in this way?

Jey Bonilla
Jey Bonilla

It doesn't make any sense at all. A very hungry snake kills a prey and leave it there then goes and kill another one just to crawl away? Something is really wrong with this picture, I hope they just don't blame the animal and investigate the man.

Ivy S.
Ivy S.

This is really sad story but it doesn't really fit together. Why was the snake not sercured in it's holding tank? Why did the snake suffocate both boys? It could have been prevented.

Leah Vance
Leah Vance

Why was the owner's son not attacked...only the two boys staying overnight. Seems very odd.  Also, noting that this type of attack is very rare and usually only reserved for this type of snake when it is extremely hungry...why were neither of the children at least partially consumed?  It sounds too convenient that the guy checks on the kids, finds a hole in the  ceiling and a snake is to blame.  If the snake was downstairs in the pet store and got loose somehow, found a way into the ventilation system straight to the room where the boys were, bore a hole through the ceiling, only kills the two overnight guests out of hunger but consumes neither and then makes a quick getaway to wherever his built in GPS system took him next (hopefully McDonald's since we are assuming he was starving)...WTF?!  Hopefully the Canadian police have an interpreter that can speak python so this snake can be questioned further about his side of the story before they bring in Dudley Do-Right to euthanize him!

Matt Marlin
Matt Marlin

Heard a few minutes ago that the actual event is even more tragic and an example of irresponsibility.  The python did not escape from the store, but was housed in the residence.  Nice parenting. 

Dayna Speelman
Dayna Speelman

This is weird...they just happened to be sleeping over the man's house who owns the store where the snake "escaped?" ...something doesn't sound right.

j. williams
j. williams

This does not make sense to me.  I have never heard of a snake just killing something and not eating it -- and then, killing a second time and not eating that either!  The article doesn't state what condition the boys were in, but obviously they weren't eaten, because their bodies were still there.  And if the boys were asleep, the snake wouldn't have felt threatened to strike for protection. 

Tan Jie
Tan Jie

last question wasn't even answered lolol

Cheryl Walker
Cheryl Walker

This is NOT normal snake behavior; or even of a 'spooked' snake. So much doesn't make sense. A 100 lb. snake lands by sleeping boys, and they don't wake up? What are the odds the snake knocked them BOTH out at the same time? What was the second boy doing while the first was being strangled? No. This story is too bizarre. I hope they don't just blame the snake, and not investigate the owner

Blaise Pascal
Blaise Pascal

Unfortunately our experts in Canada have a Wikipedia level. I hope they can read and understand this article.

J. J.
J. J.

@Ivy S. Pythons are notorious for escaping tanks when they aren`t secure enough. 

As for constricting both boys, it also happens sometimes with snakes and other kinds of prey, its called surplus killing; apparently if there's still stimulus around the snake that it associates with prey (in this case probably smell and body heat), it will continue on predatory mode for longer. This happens sometimes with smaller snakes when they find say, a litter of helpless baby mammals in a burrow, where they can´t go anywhere. 

Yes, this could have been prevented very easily. People need to understand that large constricting snakes are NOT pets and should NOT be in a home.

Joshua Hernandez
Joshua Hernandez

@Leah Vance the children staying the night were likely sleeping on the floor, while the owners son likely slept in his bed. Surplus killing isn't that uncommon with rock pythons either, as they are a particularly aggressive species. Its not that mysterious, this was a large predator doing what came instinctively. It may have attempted to consume the first, found it too large, then moved on to the second with just as little success.

J. J.
J. J.

@j. williams Both things happen, tho; this is the first time I hear about it concerning a python, but some other snake species will indeed kill more than once when they find several potential prey in a reduced space- its called surplus killing.

Also, pythons are known to kill prey that they can´t consume later, often because the victim is way too big for the snake to swallow and the snake does not realize this until after it tries to do so. Not saying that this is necessarily what happened here, tho, just saying it does happen.

Samantha Masters
Samantha Masters

@Cheryl Walker really good point you made there 

where the weight and landing is concerned

Adam Waller
Adam Waller

@Cheryl Walker 

The boy being strangled by the snake would be squeezed so hard he likely wouldn't be able to call out for help and the snake would also likely have wrapped it's coils around the boys head covering is mouth. (have a friend stand behind you and squeeze you as hard as they can with their arms wrapped around your chest and see if you can call out for help)

It's not hard to image that the other boy wouldn't have heard anything loud enough to wake him up until he himself was being attacked.


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