The New Brunswick SPCA says it has never been contacted by Reptile Ocean owner Jean-Claude Savoie about licensing his Campbellton business as a pet store.
Two young boys were killed by an African rock python in an apartment above Reptile Ocean earlier this month. The bodies of Noah Barthe, 4, and his brother Connor, 6, were discovered on Aug. 5.
The licensing process would have triggered annual inspections, according to the SPCA’s chief animal control officer for the province, Carl MacAulay.
But it is up to individual establishments to apply for licences, he added.
"The onus and responsibility, just like a driver’s licence, is upon the person or organization," said MacAulay. "We’ve had no reason to engage them."
A preliminary autopsy found the boys died of asphyxiation. It's believed the python, which was 4.3 metres long and weighed about 45 kilograms, made its way through the top of its enclosure and into a ventilation system before falling through the ceiling and into the living room of the apartment.
Reptile Ocean has been described as a zoo, but it also sold small animals, such as fish and lizards, according to Bry Loyst, of the Indian River Reptile Zoo in Peterborough, Ont.
'Somewhere along the way, the ball was dropped.' —Carl MacAulay, New Brunswick SPCA
Loyst saw the inside of Reptile Ocean when he was in Campbellton last week to help remove animals from the facility and relocate them to accredited zoos.
MacAulay said even the sale of a small number of animals should prompt an owner to seek a pet establishment licence from the SPCA.
"If he was selling any kind of animal, he should have applied for a licence," he said.
Has hired lawyer
Savoie’s lawyer, Leslie Matchim, would not discuss Reptile Ocean’s legal status or its licensing as a store or zoo. "I have not turned my mind to those things," he said.
Matchim said he’s focusing on the investigations by the RCMP and the provincial Department of Natural Resources.
The building where Reptile Ocean is housed on Pleasant Street is zoned as "central commercial" under the city of Campbellton’s zoning bylaw.
That zoning allows residential units on the upper floors. The same designation applies throughout the city’s downtown.
The city’s animal control bylaw prohibits any "venomous or constrictor reptile" from being "in any public place."
The city’s chief administrative officer, Manon Cloutier, refused to elaborate on the bylaws. She wouldn’t say whether a commercial space is considered public, and she wouldn’t say whether anything in the zoning for the building defines it as a retail store.
MacAulay said he’s been trying to sort out the confusion over the rules. "Somewhere along the way, the ball was dropped," he said.
The New Brunswick SPCA took over the enforcement role for pet stores under a 2010 provincial law. It has about 20 enforcement officers across the province. Among their tasks is to make annual visits to all licensed pet establishments as part of the licence renewal process.
MacAulay said the vast majority of the cases the SPCA handles involve dogs and cats.
The provincial law also requires the owners of pet establishments that deal with reptiles to meet the standards of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Committee’s training program for certified reptile handlers.
But that would only apply to Reptile Ocean if it had applied for a licence in the first place. PIJAC said it has no record of Savoie enrolling in its program.
Louis McCann, PIJAC’s executive director, said despite the pet establishment regulations, the lead provincial department when it comes to exotic animals is the Department of Natural Resources.
But McCann said when SPCA officers inspect licensed pet stores, it would be reasonable to expect them to point out any exotic wildlife violations they encountered to DNR.
"If I go into any of your stores, I’m duty-bound to report it," he said. "If I see a species that is illegal or that requires special consideration, I will report it. Absolutely."