By Mairin Prentiss, Anna Mehler Paperny, Julia Wong and Nick Logan – Global News
HALIFAX AND TORONTO – The four-metre python that killed Connor and Noah Barthe was sleeping right beside them, says a friend of the snake’s owner.
African Rock Pythons are prohibited in New Brunswick. But the huge snake one friend says was part of Jean-Claude Savoie’s “private collection” lived in an enclosure in Savoie’s apartment, very close to the living room where the Barthe brothers were sleeping over Sunday night.
That room’s now being treated like a crime scene. The python’s been put down. And investigators are trying to figure out how a snake known more for timidity than ferocity escaped its cage and killed two kids it shouldn’t have seen as food.
In an interview with Global News Monday, Savoie called the incident “tragic.”
“My body is in shock. I don’t know what to think,” he said. “I feel like they’re my kids.”
Savoie owns and runs Reptile Ocean, the ground-floor pet store under his apartment in Campbellton, NB. He hung up the phone twice when Global News tried to reach him with questions Tuesday.
Noah Barthe was four and a half years old. His brother Connor would have been seven later this month. Autopsies were being performed on them Tuesday to determine their exact cause of death.
They were regulars at Savoie’s place, says Mike MacDonald. Lots of kids were.
“They were kind of always over there.”
MacDonald, curator of the Maritime Reptile Zoo in Dartmouth, N.S., knows reptiles. He knew that python. He knows Savoie, who’s been a friend for years. And he can’t figure out what happened.
“It’s been kind of a blur,” he said. “I talked to Jean-Claude [Monday] for a bit, and he’s devastated. Just can’t believe this is happening.”
Savoie has been reptile-obsessed since age seven, MacDonald said. He set up enclosures of unusual animals throughout his home.
In an interview on Monday, Savoie said a government wildlife agency gave him the snake to take care of more than a decade ago, and took it in reluctantly.
“I didn’t even want the snake,” Savoie said, “but I didn’t want to see it euthanized.”
The province’s natural resources department wouldn’t comment on the specifics of this case, citing the ongoing criminal investigation. But a spokesman noted that African Rock Pythons are banned in the province because they aren’t on a designated list of permitted exotic animals.
“The only exception would be an accredited zoo, which could apply to have exotic animals not found on the list. Permits are never issued to keep an illegal exotic animal as a pet,” spokesman Steve Benteau said in an email.
MacDonald said he doesn’t know what kind of permits or accreditation Savoie had – “we never really got into the politics at all.” But “in order to keep those animals, he would have had to have had some type of license. So I’m assuming yes.”
Reptile Ocean, Inc. has been listed under several different designations in provincial corporate registries over the past several years. These include “zoo,” “reptile display” and “exotic animals exhibit.” But starting in 2010 and every year since, it has called itself a “pet store starting in Sept. 2011. Previously reptile display.”
A provincial spokesperson noted that a business owner can choose the wording of a designation himself.
Reptile Ocean is included as a zoo in some listings, which say it charges for admission: $4 for children and $6 for adults.
It used to be operated as a zoo, MacDonald said, but Savoie “decided to become a pet store and basically let everybody view the animals for free.”
“So he stopped taking admission and just ran the pet store downstairs. The stuff upstairs was kind of his private collection.”
And while many of the reptiles on the first floor are for sale, MacDonald said, this python was not: Its place was in Savoie’s apartment, where wood-and-glass enclosures acted as room or hallway partitions, giving the place a zoo-like feel.
This particular python’s enclosure, made of wood, fibreglass and epoxy with a thick glass display window, was built to hold crocodilians, MacDonald said. Its previous inhabitant was a much larger anaconda. So it should have been strong enough to hold this snake.
Each of these enclosures also had vents in the top linking up to a ventilation system to help the animals breathe, MacDonald said.
“But to my knowledge, from what I remember, all of them did have covers,” he said.
RCMP have said the snake reached the two boys through a ventilation system.
The python was euthanized Monday, and is undergoing necropsy to figure out what might have prompted the apparently unprovoked attack.
This isn’t something African Rock Pythons normally do: They attack if they’re threatened, or if they’re hungry.
“We’re not on their menu,” said Bry Loyst, curator of the Indian River Reptile Zoo in Indian River, Ontario.
Loyst added that it’s possible the children smelled appealing to the snake, perhaps due to the scents from the other animals living in the building.
“They must have smelled great.”
Human deaths in the coils of African rock pythons are extremely rare, but not unheard of. In 2000, a couple whose three-year-old son was squeezed to death by the family’s two-metre python was acquitted of child endangerment.
The snake implicated in the Barthe boys’ deaths would have been big even for its sizable species: The largest male African Rock Python found in Florida was just over four metres (females, however, tend to be larger).
Last year, the United States prohibited the import of African Rock Pythons, which are considered “injurious wildlife.”
“We can speculate, with the snake, how they do things, but for the real cause of death we’ll have to wait for the pathologist’s report,” RCMP Sergeant Alain Tremblay told reporters at a Tuesday press conference.
He said investigators would speak with the store’s owner “in a short time,” and wouldn’t speculate on what potential charges might result from the investigation.
“We’re not there yet,” he said. “Yes, I confirmed it’s a criminal investigation because two young boys lost their lives. It’s very serious. But … it’s going to take time.”
Tremblay said police don’t know whether Savoie had the proper licenses needed to keep a prohibited animal such as an African Rock Python.
“We’re just at the first step of this investigation,” he said. “It’s not an easy case.”