Exotic Pets — an accident waiting to happen?

By Becky Benoit

The scene above the exotic pet store in New Brunswick seems like something that could only happen in a low-budget horror movie. An enormous python, weighing more than 100 pounds, escapes from its cage, slithers into the ventilation system and falls with a quiet thud into the apartment upstairs, where two little boys are fast asleep. The massive reptile strangles the children while they slumber, while their guardians sleep, all unknowing, in the next room.

Only this wasn’t a movie set — this tragedy, which has riveted the attention of people across Canada and beyond, was all too real. Pictures of Connor Barthe, 6, and his 4-year old brother Noah, have appeared in newspapers and online. The images of the little boys, sporting gap-toothed grins and summer tans, drive home the terrible reality that this terrible thing really happened.

How preventable was this tragedy? There are no Canada-wide laws governing the sale and care of exotic pets like pythons — regulations differ between provinces and municipalities — but experts suggest that large snakes like the 12-foot long African rock python that strangled the Barthe boys should only be owned by experienced handlers that know how to safely contain and feed big constrictors. It’s recommended that any snake longer than eight feet be fed by more than one person; a ratio of one person per four feet of snake is best.

Why do we feel the need to keep large, dangerous animals that clearly belong in the wild as pets? It’s a good question — after all, unlike a dog or a cat, a big snake isn’t cuddly or particularly friendly, it can survive in the wild quite well without human assistance, and you can’t even take it for a walk. Why don’t we leave these magnificent but potentially lethal creatures where they belong?

I can offer some personal insight into this question. In my first year of teaching, as a bright-eyed young thing fresh out of university and determined to be the “cool” teacher, I acquiesced to my students’ demands for a class pet. The students took a vote and, by narrow majority, the decision was made: we were getting a snake. After a quick trip to Fort McMurray’s pet store and a few days of internet research, I decided on a ball python. For one, the constrictor is relatively small, easy to care for and known for its laid-back personality. Also, it was the only snake the pet store had in stock. A few hours later, my reptile was happily installed in its tank.

And that’s when the trouble started. First of all, while I thought I had done my research in how to care for the snake, I had clearly been remiss when it came to housing. My 20-gallon fish tank didn’t have the proper kind of lid to allow for correct ventilation and humidity, so I jury-rigged another lid with cardboard and duct tape. I eyed the tall glass walls of the tank and the diminutive size of my baby python, who was around 12 inches long. There’s no way he could reach the top, I decided.

When it came time to feed him, I realized I had a bigger problem. My snake, despite the assurances of the friendly teenager who sold him to me, showed less than zero interest in the defrosted baby mouse I offered him, even after I hopefully dunked in chicken broth, trying not to gag. Turns out, ball pythons are notoriously fussy eaters and, while some do eat thawed mice contentedly, many will stubbornly starve themselves until you either chuck in some live prey, or force-feed them. Feeding a snake live mice tends to make them more aggressive and more likely to bite, but since I wasn’t about to force-feed the snake, which brought with it a host of related problems including potential injury and stress on the animal (never mind the owner!), I threw caution to the winds and returned to the pet store for a “pinky”, the nickname for a baby mouse who hasn’t grown fur or even opened his eyes yet.

Fighting back horror, guilt and growing sense that I had gotten in way over my head here, I put the snake in his feeding box and cautiously poked in the squirming pink mouse baby. The python immediately livened up, uncurling himself to watch the mouse with those eerily flat snake eyes. In a sudden and violent flurry of activity, he grabbed the mouse, curling his body around it with surprising speed. It was all over in a matter of minutes, but the nausea tickling my stomach lasted for hours.

Things only got more complicated from there. Sadie (turns out it’s more difficult to tell the gender of a snake than one might imagine) quickly graduated from live baby mice to live adult mice, swallowing two of them each week before an audience of fascinated Grade 8 students. As it grew, the snake became more aggressive, biting me on several occasions as I was feeding it.

Feeding time grew more stressful for all of us. Watching a snake eat a live animal is upsetting, despite the crowd of cheering junior highs who were always on hand to watch the event, and sometimes we were forced to substitute when live mice weren’t available. One afternoon, we had to feed Sadie a baby hamster, which seemed wrong, somehow, even though they’re not that different from mice.

My jury-rigged tank started to cause me problems as well. One morning, during a particularly uneventful Social Studies class, one of my students leaped from his desk and shouted, “The snake! It’s gone!”

“What?” I gasped, my heart sinking. “No, it can’t be…” But it was. Sadie had somehow managed to climb the side of his glass tank, using his tacky skin as a means of gaining purchase, push his way out through the weakly-reinforced cardboard square that covered up a minuscule hole, squeeze through the opening, climb a set of cupboards (amazing, considering he has no limbs to speak of), and slither around near the ceiling, drawn by the warm air puffing out of the vents. Thank goodness the squares in the ceiling vent were too narrow for him to squeeze through, or my teaching career would have been very short-lived. As it was, he curled up in an empty box underneath the heating vent, nearly scaring me into an apoplectic fit when I discovered him.

We were heading for trouble now. Rumour quickly circulated around the school that the snake had escaped and been caught, and some staff members were decidedly uncomfortable, calling for Sadie to be quickly ridden out of town on a rail. I can’t blame them — if I’d heard that a tarantula was loose in the school, I’d be ready to start investigating online learning options as well.

The end came when Sadie bit a student as we were returning him to his cage after a feeding. The bite was minor but the writing was on the wall — this clearly was not the right pet for our classroom. The python, though generally very gentle with the students and accustomed to being handled, was becoming too aggressive, too good at escaping and entirely too distracting from the business of our classroom, which was learning. With a heavy heart, I found him a good home with a reptile enthusiast who said she’d always wanted one of these snakes, and was prepared for the unpleasant aspects of snake ownership.

Like so many parents, I caved under pressure from the kids. Let mine be a cautionary tale. Granted, ball pythons are not African rock pythons, or reticulated pythons, or boa constrictors; they’re not even close. Ball pythons are generally not dangerous to humans, due to their small size, and they can make a good pet under the right circumstances, with the right kind of enclosure, the right feeding from the beginning, and an owner who is well-informed and prepared for the many difficulties that can arise when you own a reptile, from the risk of salmonella to the possibility of the snake becoming aggressive or sick. I think, however, that we can all agree that both Sadie and myself would have been much happier had he remained in the wild, where he ultimately belongs.

What is your opinion on pythons and other exotic pet species in Canada — should they be banned? If not, should there be more clear rules and regulations on their ownership? Tell us what you think by email at editorial@macmedia.ca.