Preliminary autopsy results on two New Brunswick boys who were killed after an African rock python escaped its enclosure in Campbellton, N.B., show they died from asphyxiation, RCMP said Wednesday, as questions lingered about how the large snake came to be in the possession of a pet store.
The pathologist completed the autopsies on Noah and Connor Barthe on Tuesday.
"At least right now we have a cause of death. Even though we still need some reports from the pathologist to be forwarded, that's going to help the investigation to move forward," RCMP Sgt. Alain Tremblay told CBC News.
Tremblay said in a statement that police are aware the case has "touched the hearts of people across the world" and that people are eager to know how the deaths could have happened.
"Our investigators are looking at all aspects of this tragic incident, and that will take some time," he said of the investigation into the deaths of Noah, 4, and Connor, 6.
Vigil held for N.B. boys
A vigil held for the two boys in Campbellton on Wednesday evening drew hundreds of people, CBC's Michael Dick reported.
The vigil lasted just over half an hour, and featured family friends, prayers from the local church and comments from the deputy mayor. One young boy, who was a friend of the deceased brothers, spoke and asked that all the toys that had been donated be given to the boys in heaven.
Under the weight of the tragedy, one woman said, it was good to see people coming together.
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Ian Comeau, Campbellton's deputy mayor and chair of the city's public protective services, told CBC News that funerals were expected on Saturday.
He said people came together for a "celebration of two beautiful angels, Noah and Connor."
Comeau said more information is coming out each day, but it was important to allow investigators to finish their work before rushing to judgment.
The case is still being treated as a criminal investigation. Tremblay told CBC News earlier Wednesday that the case is unique, and will involve a learning process for investigators and the pathologists involved in the case.
The statement from the RCMP said that police have also gleaned some information from the necropsy performed on the python, which had been euthanized.
"It appears the snake was overall in good health, although the final report will take time to come back," the statement said.
Questions about snake
Marc Doiron, a former employee of Reptile Ocean owner Jean-Claude Savoie, said that Savoie didn't buy the python. He said the snake was brought to Savoie at Reptile Ocean, which for a time had a zoo licence.
The New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources said in an email that according to its records, it "never had any involvement" with the python.
In an email Wednesday, Environment Canada said it had assisted the Moncton SPCA in relocating the African rock python to Reptile Ocean in Campbellton in 2002.
CBC's Harry Forestell reported that Reptile Ocean's zoo licence eventually lapsed. When African rock pythons were banned in New Brunswick in 2009, the snake in Campbellton was missed.
Jurisdiction over exotic pets falls to provinces and municipalities, Environment Canada said.
Police remained at Reptile Ocean on Wednesday and officers left carrying two paper bags from inside the cordoned-off shop, Dick reported earlier in the day.
Provincial conservation officers were also on site into the afternoon, with at least two trucks backed up to the shop, Dick said.
Some of the animals were expected to be seized and moved to other parts of the province as well as Nova Scotia, said Dick.
The African rock python was found near the boys in the living room of an apartment above the reptile store on Monday morning by Savoie. Noah and Connor had been staying there for a sleepover with Savoie's son.
Police said Tuesday that contrary to previous reports the snake was not kept in the store but was contained upstairs.
It's believed the animal escaped through the top of a glass enclosure and into a ventilation system. The python, which was 4.3 metres long and weighed about 45 kilograms, fell through the ceiling and into the room where the two boys were sleeping.
Zoo assisting police
The Magnetic Hill Zoo in Moncton has strict protocols regarding enclosures for snakes, particularly pythons, said manager Bruce Dougan.
"You have to be very, very careful in providing an enclosure for these animals so they cannot get out, because they are very, very good at getting out of their spaces," he told CBC News.
The zoo's enclosures have double-locked doors, and there is only one exit point. Any "soft spots" such as vents would be double-barricaded, said Dougan.
The zoo, which is assisting police with the investigation, does not have any African rock pythons, but does have 12 big snakes, including a Burmese python.
When zoo staff enter a snake enclosure, they also have an airlock system in place, said Dougan. They go through one door, close that door behind them, and then enter the second door.
When handling the snakes, staff also ensure they don't have the scent of any possible food sources, such as rodents, on their hands, he said.
"Very often people would not be a target for big snakes like this because we have many other odours on us. We have deodorants and different perfumes from laundry soaps and other things that they would not recognize as a food source."
The boys, however, spent their last day on a farm, in close contact with animals, according to a relative.
"So you know, that certainly could have [been] a factor in this case."
Police asked zoo staff to identify the species of snake involved and to assess the health of other animals kept at Reptile Ocean, said Dougan.
"We did identify the snake as an African rock python, and we provided some information with regards to the health of the collection of animals there," he said without elaborating.
Zoo staff may be called upon to testify if the case ends up in court, Dougan added.
Happy last day
A great uncle of the two boys, Dave Rose, said that they and their mother were friends with Savoie, and had spent the day together on Sunday. They spent part of their time at Savoie's family farm.
"There they played with llamas and goats and horses," Rose said Tuesday. "They went for a ride on the farm tractor with Jean-Claude, and he even let them steer the tractor, so it was a super day."
The two families returned to Savoie's apartment for the sleepover, and they separated around midnight.
Rose also thanked the public for the support the family has received and asked for privacy.
Previous complaints will be probed
Earlier Tuesday, a New Brunswick government official said African rock pythons are not permitted under the province's exotic wildlife regulations.
Comeau said Tuesday previous complaints against the exotic pet store, Reptile Ocean, will be examined.
Many in the tight-knit community of 7,500 said they are shocked by what happened, some adding that they had visited the store.
Betty Tremblay said she couldn't understand why someone would keep an African rock python.
"I thought it was horrible; you can't keep animals like that in a house, shocking," she said. "I can't imagine what these people are going through."
New Brunswick Premier David Alward issued a message of condolence on behalf of the provincial government on Wednesday.
He described the boys' deaths as an "unimaginable tragedy."
"As a father, the tragic loss of these two young lives full of so much promise and potential is a lasting reminder that ensuring our children's safety is paramount," Alward said in the statement.
He is "shocked and saddened" and offers sympathy to the boys' family and friends, he said.
A small memorial to the victims has been set up outside Reptile Ocean, including several teddy bears and candles.
The local pharmacy, Jean Coutu, has set up a donation bin to help raise money for the boys' funerals.
An account has also been set up at Toronto-Dominion Bank in Campbellton, according to the Connor and Noah Barthe Dedication Page on Facebook.
The page, which was set up on Tuesday to show support for the family, had more than 10,000 "likes" within 24 hours.
"Heaven now has two new angels," it states.