Hamilton reptile expert says some snakes aren't good pets

The death of two New Brunswick boys has turned the spotlight on large snakes. Not all snakes are dangerous, experts say. But those that are should only be handled by pros.

Hamilton experts say larger breeds are not for amateurs

Steve Featherstone, owner of Little Ray's Reptile Zoo on Barton Street East, holds a reticulated python. Large snakes are the same as large cat breeds, he said. They should be approached with caution. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The African rock python snake that killed two boys in New Brunswick is not a good pet, local reptile experts say. But there are snakes that are.

Snake lovers can opt for comparatively harmless breeds for pets, such as ball pythons or corn snakes. Those with large reptilian pets, such as anacondas or African rock pythons, likely have them for the "cool factor," said Steve Featherstone, owner of Little Ray's Reptile Zoo on Barton Street East.

"A lot of people get into it for the wrong reasons," said Featherstone, who has large snakes such as reticulated pythons and anacondas in his zoo.

"I think it's more 'I have this and a lot of people are afraid of it or nervous of it,' and it becomes the cool factor. Big snakes like reticulated pythons, obviously those shouldn't be in private hands."

The snake has been discussed since Monday, when Noah and Connor Barthe, aged four and six, were killed by an African rock python in Campbellton, N.B.

The 4.3-metre snake escaped from Reptile Ocean, an exotic pet store below, where it was kept in a floor-to-ceiling glass tank. It escaped through a ventilation pipe, which collapsed from the snake's weight. The snake landed in the living room where the boys were sleeping on a mattress.

Noah Barthe, left, and Connor Barthe pose in this undated photo posted on the Facebook page of Mandy Trecartin. (Canadian Press)

RCMP believe the snake strangled the brothers, but an autopsy Tuesday will determine the cause of death.

It is illegal to own or sell snakes longer than three metres in the city of Hamilton, said Calum Burnett, supervisor for animal control. If larger snakes are found, the owner can be fined up to $10,000 on first offense, and must dispose of them or the city will.

Tips for safely handling snakes

1. Have more than one person present when handling a large snake

Pythons, particularly those longer than six feet, can quickly suffocate a human. The protocol within the animal control office is to have two staff members handling a snake that is six feet or more, Burnett said. At Little Ray's, two staff members handle a snake that is eight feet or more. Such snakes should only be handled by professionals anyway, Featherstone said. And his staff never work alone.

2. Select the right kind of snake for you

Snakes can make a good pet, but like a dog or cat, you have to select the right breed, said Jon Kendrick, owner of reptilestore.ca in Hamilton. Different types have different temperaments. The larger the snake, the larger the enclosure needed. Some tropical species will develop respiratory ailments in cool houses, Kendrick said.

3. Get one from a reputable source

Snakes are either bred or come from the wild. Those from breeders are preferred, Kendrick said. They come with lower risk of diseases and are often more used to being handled.

4. Don't put it around your neck

Constrictors squeeze and strangle their prey, but that's not the only circumstance where they could strangle someone, Kendrick said. They could get nervous or lose their balance. "That's not to say they're out to kill anybody, but with something of that muscle mass, it takes an experienced person to handle that safely," he said.

5. Be alert and aware

The temperament of a snake can change in seconds, so every interaction with a large snake is potentially life threatening, Featherstone said. Some pythons, he said, have strike distances of 14 feet or more. He avoids them "after a long day, or if you're tired," he said. "If you're having a bad day, you leave it alone."

The city bylaw allows:

  • Non-venomous snakes no longer than three metres from nose to tip
  • Non-venemous lizards no longer than two metres
  • No animals that produces a venom or toxin except three types of tarantula — Chilean Rose, Mexican Red-Knee and Pink-Toe  

Violating the bylaw can mean a maximum fine of $10,000 on first offense, and $25,000 for a second violation.