Python Kills Two Children

In Campbellton, New Brunswick, a pet snake escaped, then apparently crawled through the ventilation system and into a living room. There it killed two children--Noah Barthe, 5, and his brother Connor, 7. An RCMP spokesperson said they were "strangled," but probably the mode of death was asphyxiation by constriction. That, at least, has been the cause of death in other cases of large constrictors killing humans. Such incidents are rare; the victims are almost always either the owners of pet snakes or their children. Though the snake involved here was kept in a pet store, it was actually the private pet of the owner. He was the best friend of the children's father, and the children were sleeping over with his son at his apartment above the store. After discovering the children's bodies, the owner found and captured the snake. He turned it over to police. His own son was sleeping in a different room and was not harmed.

The motive in such attacks appears to be predation but, as in this case, the snake does not actually consume the victim. As mentioned in The Book of Deadly Animals, the snake will examine its killed prey carefully before consuming it. It is at this point that the snake apparently finds something about humans unpalatable. Tales of predation on humans in the wild are common but polluted with folklore, though a couple of scientific publications in recent years support the idea that reticulate pythons may prey on humans. 

This snake was an African rock python weighing 45 kilograms (99 pounds) and measuring between 3.5 and 4.5 meters (roughly 11 and a half to fifteen feet). A much smaller member of this species killed three-year-old Jesse Lee Altom in Centralia, Illinois, in 1999, as he slept between two adults. 

Thanks to D'Arcy for the news tip.


  1. African rock pythons (P. sebae & P. natalensis) really strike me as snakes nobody should ever keep as pets--legitimate exhibition animals, perhaps, but not pets. Possibly somewhere a tame rock python exists, but all specimens I have had dealings with have possessed thoroughly vile dispositions and were easier to provoke than most venomous snakes I've observed in action. (As in, you entered a room and the snake struck the front of the cage.) Since predation is often somewhat of a reflexive act in a snake once it seizes something of appropriate size, I can easily imagine a kid rolling over into a prowling rock python and triggering an attack; if there were other animals in the house, the smell of a pet on the children could have induced an attack too, I suppose.

    As a snake-owner, I personally feel that a public horsewhipping for criminal idiocy would be a very light punishment for the keeper.

  2. From looking at similar cases, a number of which have involved sleeping children, I suspect that such attacks are not defensive, even in the sense of striking reflexively at a child rolling over in his sleep. The case of Jesse Lee Altom is interesting because the snake chose the child as he slept between two adults. It could be that the adults held still and the child happened to move, but I think it more likely the python chose the animal closest to the appropriate prey size. Clearly these constrictors don't eat every item they kill, at least in captivity. That may be a matter of surplus killing, as is seen in many mammalian carnivores.

    It's plausible that the children smelled like some familiar food item, but very hard to test. What makes most sense to me is that the pythons sense children as viable small humans as viable prey and kill them, but then find something about us unacceptable on close olfactory inspection. It's been suggested that soap and other such chemicals are the deterrent.

  3. Size does play a role, certainly, although cases abound of snakes killing prey too large to eat due to misjudging size. But as we've bandied about in the discussions on sharks, the sensory capabilities of a snake probably would alert it to any unappetizing smells long before things reached the swallowing stage. Then again, neither snakes nor sharks are geniuses. I've often wondered if the unpalatability of clothing is what deters snakes from consuming people, at least in a Western setting where most of us wear more than the indigenous people in tropical countries tend to go around in.

    I'm skeptical of the surplus killing habits of snakes; I've known snakes to grab and kill an animal out of reflex and decide they aren't hungry, especially if disturbed, and I've known them to take multiple prey items one after another. Some snakes--rattlers and cottonmouths--will take carrion: a western diamondback was seen trying to swallow a dove so rancid as to have maggots crawling on it and only gave up due to rigor mortis, and cottonmouths hang around seabird rookeries to eat dropped fish or even hacked-up gobs of fish parent birds drop, as much as to eat eggs or young birds. I've heard of western hognoses in captivity habitually leaving rodent prey until it gets a bit "gamey" but I've never seen this and am skeptical. Since snakes aren't built to chase and kill numerous prey items--multiple prey items at one feeding are generally a mother bird or rodent and her brood, something of that sort--in the same way that say, wolves are, I have a hard time seeing the surplus killing angle fit as readily as it would with a big cat, wolf or even a bear.

    A final point which leads me to think that, even if nothing sinister is going on, somebody is not being truthful is the way things supposedly went down. For all the guff and hype about snakes being "silent predators"--although I have not fed live rodents for years now, I can testify that mice, rats and hamsters, even when grabbed by snakes larger in relation to them than this python was to the children, do not die instantly or silently. The animal typically kicks and thrashes, and usually has time to squeal once or twice. Obviously, as the Jesse Altom case shows, exceptions occur, but the odds of a snake pulling off back-to-back killings without causing some sort of commotion seem very long to me.

    I find the idea of a tragic, million-to-one odds accident involving an improperly kept, dangerous reptile much more palatable than some of the alternatives---either that evidence was tampered with and people are being less than truthful, or worse...but the story as propounded raises numerous questions. I suppose the best that can be done at this point is sit back and await developments.

  4. James,

    You're probably right that a snake does not kill to excess from the same motives as a mammalian carnivore. It would be useful to know how often snakes in the wild abandon kills. Some sources seem to think that killing without eating is an artifact of the unnatural condition of captivity, but I don't know if there are data to prove that.

    As for their senses, it's worth pointing out that the big constrictors tend to carefully examine their prey with flickering tongue between killing it and eating it. This suggests to me that they are taking a closer "look" with their olfactory senses to make sure the prey is suitable. I suggest that they kill largely on the basis of heat and motion, but are still gathering information with their chemical senses until they swallow. That's roughly parallel to the human experience of putting something in the mouth if it looks and smells good, but then rejecting it if the tongue finds it unacceptable.

    I like your theory that clothes might be the deterrent. From mantids to big cats, many predators reject the vegetation in their prey's gut. Maybe snakes dislike the non-animal nature of some clothes.

    I have some research coming up that's relevant to your point about killing two children at once. I'll save that for a separate post. Stay tuned.


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