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September 5, 2013
By Olivia Schneider

897 words – MR

Exotic pet laws are inconsistent

by Olivia Schneider

On Aug. 5, a holiday Monday in much of Canada, a small New Brunswick community garnered the shocked attention of the world. Two young brothers, Noah and Connor Barthe of Campbellton, were found dead, apparently killed by an African rock python. Autopsies showed the children, aged 6 and 4, had been asphyxiated.

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Jean-Claude Savoie found the boys dead on his living room floor, where they had spent the night as sleepover guests of he and his young son. Savoie, who owned the Reptile Ocean pet store located below his apartment, called 911.

The New Brunswick RCMP determined the python, which weighed about 45 kg – about the weight of a Rottweiler – escaped from its enclosure in Savoie’s apartment, got into the home’s ventilation system and then fell through the ceiling into the living room where the boys were sleeping.

Police announced they were treating the situation as a criminal investigation. Friends and supporters of Savoie took exception to this and some stood outside Reptile Ocean, yelling and swearing at police officers working the scene.

In the initial days following the tragedy, there were many questions begging for answers. Snake experts asked why a seemingly unprovoked African rock python attacked the boys. Officials wanted to know why the snake was kept as a pet in a province where its ownership has been illegal since 1992. The public wondered whether Savoie had been negligent in ensuring the safety of his son and the Barthe brothers.

The role of a police investigation is to answer questions and determine possible criminal liability, but the investigating team also had questions about how to proceed in the situation, unique in Canada. Sgt. Alain Tremblay was quoted by media as saying police were taking “baby steps” in the case. “Nobody in the RCMP is an expert on snakes or reptiles,” said RCMP spokesperson, Cst. Jullie Rogers-Marsh.

The case quickly appeared in news stories around the world, with incorrect information initially circulated in some media. The victims’ gender and ages were sometimes wrong, as was the snake’s breed. Rogers-Marsh said the false information didn’t affect the investigation, but reflected the challenges police face when global interest is so high.

“It’s very important to get accurate information out to the media,” she said. “We can’t speculate, but in some cases we just have to go with what we know and realize things are going to change as the investigation continues.”

The deaths have re-opened a national discussion on the laws governing exotic pet ownership. One problem lies in the lack of consistent regulation for reptile ownership across Canada.

This patchwork of laws means that snake owners with legal pets can become lawbreakers by moving from one Canadian community to another, noted Professor Patricia Farnese, an assistant law professor at the University of Saskatchewan who teaches property, agriculture and wildlife law. “There’s no national regime,” she said. “Usually someone, somewhere, was allowed to have a snake, but then they move or give it away and it’s illegal.” In addition, endangered species cannot be kept as pets.

More illegal animals were discovered during the search of Savoie’s store, including a pregnant American alligator. Animals that could not be relocated to zoos were euthanized. That is where another challenge arises for policing illegal pet ownership: often the illegal animal’s presence is not known until there is a crisis. “You don’t go out and walk snakes,” Farnese said, “so it’s difficult to know who owns one.”

Overall, Farnese described the problem of regulating exotic pet ownership as a “political hot potato.” Since animal regulation in general is such a complex issue, it’s difficult to enact change. It can also be hard to determine what makes a specific breed of snake or other exotic pet dangerous when a jurisdiction is weighing the decision to prohibit ownership – especially when there are multiple factors at play. Farnese thinks it’s important to be vigilant when considering permits, especially with densely populated areas and multifamily dwellings.

In addition to human safety, there’s the issue of animal welfare to consider. Farnese said current laws are not necessarily helpful. “There’s no requirement for how the thing should be kept, beyond providing the basics of food, shelter and not abusing it,” she noted. A quick review of web sites devoted to exotic pet care demonstrate contradictory advice from well-meaning owners. Few veterinarians specialize in exotic pets and those who do are generally located in larger cities.

Following the death of the Barthe brothers, extremes in viewpoint have been showcased in public debate on web sites and elsewhere, with some people calling for a ban on all exotic animals and suggesting harsh penalties for those who break the rules. Others defend exotic pets, noting more people are injured each year by dog bites and cat scratches than snakes and other exotic pets.

This is not a conversation unique to exotic pets, Farnese pointed out. Every few years, some type of animal becomes synonymous with violence – it became illegal to breed the pit bull in Ontario in 2005 but not in other Canadian provinces.

Farnese thinks the first and best strategy would be to create national consistency around laws on exotic pet ownership instead of tightening regulations in individual communities following a tragedy.

“It’s a polarizing debate,” she acknowledged, “that I’m not surprised the government doesn’t want to take up.”