On Pythons

Regular readers know that I’m a “snake person.” I’ve kept snakes for the majority of my life. I love Maize and Morrigan, my two pet snakes, as much as any dog or cat owner loves their fuzzy companions (although I’m decidedly more realistic about how Maize and Morrigan feel about me, which is to say, they don’t feel anything for me).

I have to talk about this fatal python attack that’s making the news rounds. It’s weird to me that this horrible thing happened in Canada at almost exactly the same time I’m in Canada myself. Just one of those weird things, I guess.

First, I want to say that regardless of how or why it happened, this is a horrible thing to have happened. I feel a tremendous amount of sympathy for the families of those boys and I realize that no level of rationalization or understanding can help heal those wounds. I feel terrible for those poor boys, as well. Constriction is one of the most horrible deaths imaginable, in my opinion. It’s one of the reasons I never feed my snakes live prey. It doesn’t matter that constriction is a constrictor’s natural means of killing. It’s a bad way for anything to go, even something as small as a mouse.

After all, it’s not like the snakes care. They don’t bother to constrict when they don’t need to do so. Arguing that I’m denying these predators the chance to hunt is just anthropomorphic projecting. Snakes don’t feel concepts such as “the thrill of the hunt.” Keep that thought in mind as we work through this.

Regardless, I’m sorry for the family, I’m sorry for the community, and I’m sorry for those boys. It’s a tragedy. No bones about it.

Now, with that said . . .

I’m going to put on my Cynical hat for the rest of this post. Ye be warned, matey. If you’re squeamish, you may wish to stop reading at this point.

I have a very difficult time believing this story as it has been presented to us. Let’s look at the basic sequence of events:

  1. The snake escaped from its enclosure into a vent.
  2. It followed the vent and ended up in the boys’ room.
  3. It proceeded to attack and constrict the two boys while they slept without anybody waking up.

Point one isn’t particularly surprising; snakes are really, really good at escaping. The fact that the owner of the python didn’t have the proper precautions to prevent an escape may or may not be criminal negligence (I don’t have the legal background to say). However, this is something that snakes do whenever they get a chance. All snakes do this.

Point two isn’t surprising, either. The first thing a snake is going to do after escaping is slither towards terrain it considers favorable. Vents are enclosed spaces, which makes snakes feel secure. The vent was probably fairly warm, which also would have drawn the snake to it.A snake going into a vent is likely scary, but not indicative of a hostile snake. This, too, is normal behavior.

Point three is where the examples of normal behavior fall apart. Snakes only attack for two reasons: to kill prey or to defend themselves. That’s it. Snakes don’t kill “for the fun of it” or “just because.” Every snake bites for one of these two reasons. The snake might incorrectly interpret a benign situation as threatening, of course. Mistakes are certainly possible. Usually, however, a snake mistakes a person as a threat when the person is doing something to make the snake feel threatened, either intentionally or unintentionally.

It’s hard to believe that two sleeping boys would make a snake feel threatened, so it makes it seem unlikely that “defense” was the reason that prompted the attack. That leaves the second option: “killing prey.” Getting food. It’s horrible to think about a snake consuming a human being, but there are a few recorded instances where it has happened.

It’s hard to believe that a snake, even a large one, would interpret a human as food. The only thing that makes this more likely is if the snake was starving, in which case it would become a much more opportunistic predator. Unless the owner was incredibly horrible at feeding this snake, however, starvation seems unlikely. Most captive snakes are fed too often rather than not often enough. Seriously, unless you’ve kept a snake, you will have a hard time wrapping your mind around how infrequently they can eat. Sometimes, my python has gone a month between meals for no reason more than “because she didn’t feel like eating.”

So, the python has arrived in the room and it’s either starving (and thus opportunistic) or the boys themselves have done something to make themselves appear as food to the snake. If the owner kept live prey for this python, it’s likely that he had several rabbits or other large rodents on hand. Maybe the boys played with the rabbits and enough scent rubbed off on them. It’s possible.

When a constrictor attempts to kill prey, it has to strike. It leads with a quick bite that secures a grip on the prey and allows the snake to use its powerful body to lift the prey enough to begin wrapping its coils around the victim.

These snakes have very sharp teeth to aid in securing their grip. These sharp teeth produce very painful bites.

I can’t imagine a situation that would have resulted in both boys being killed. If the snake struck and constricted one boy, the screams would have surely woken up the other boy. More likely, they would have woken up everybody in the building. Bites from a large python hurt.

The snake would have had to struck and constricted the first boy, killed him without making a sound, and then repeated the same process on the second boy, again without making a sound. This seems unlikely.

If the snake hadn’t bitten, I’m not sure how it could have gotten its coils around both boys to begin constricting them. It would have literally had to slither under them both to get coils beneath their sleeping bodies, again without waking them. It’s hard to imagine the pressure of a heavy snake on one’s body wouldn’t wake at least one boy which would lead to screaming. Even I would wake up screaming if I found a python in my bed, and I love pythons.

Also unlikely is the gruesome but accurate puzzle of why the snake didn’t consume the first boy before killing the second? A snake almost always engages in the feeding process immediately after completing a kill; the only thing that would cause them to abandon a kill without eating is if another predator posed a threat.

It’s actually incredibly difficult for snakes to consume humans, even children. Our bipedal bodies give us a very unique silhouette in the animal kingdom and our broad shoulders make it impossible for a snake to swallow a human past the head (of course, the human will still be dead in this scenario, so that’s a small comfort). Children are more vulnerable, of course, but still unlikely to suffer this fate.

This situation just doesn’t add up. Why would the snake seek out these boys instead of ignoring them? Why would it attack both of them? Why didn’t it try to eat? Why didn’t anybody hear the scream that would have resulted from a painful python bite?

I’m not saying it’s impossible. Clearly, it’s not, as there are two boys whose lives have been taken from them.

I am, however, saying that Occam’s Razor doesn’t support such a series of improbabilities necessary for this story to happen in the way it has been presented. I am saying that the explanation that a python went out of its way to murder two boys seems very unlikely to me.

Certainly, it seems more unlikely than a scenario in which something else strangled two children and then blamed it on a convenient scapegoat. Consider this:

In the past 100 years, Mr. Marais said experts had traced only three cases of human strangulation deaths by pythons in all of Africa. “It’s an incredibly rare event,” he said from Pretoria, South Africa. It would be even more unusual for two people to be killed in the same incident, he said.

Again, it’s not impossible, but these events are, in my opinion, incredibly improbable.

I imagine that when more details emerge, we’ll hopefully learn the truth. I assume that asphyxiation via snake leaves very different marks on a body compared to more mundane forms of strangulation. I guess we’ll see.

Regardless of how it happened, the snake is dead, too, and I’m sure this will provoke more violence and hatred against an order of reptiles that has suffered far more at our hands than we have to their fangs or coils. Snakes will be blamed for being “dangerous,” even though far more people are killed by dogs every year.

But that won’t matter. It never does. Because in the end, to many people snakes are scary and it’s all to easy to blame something that seems scary.

6 thoughts on “On Pythons

    1. Dogs must be like the cars of the animal death world. We get into cars, which have a relatively high death rate, while we’re terrified of any number of far far less dangerous things, because for some reason we don’t want to believe something as familiar as a car is way more dangerous than lightning, or random germs, or a child walking unsupervised.

      When I was researching bear and mountain lion deaths, it very quickly became clear dog deaths were way more common. By orders of magnitude. And mountain lions do prey on humans, unlike snakes.

      The weirdest thing about that story is the snake silently getting both boys, like you said. I’m also a little puzzled that it was a sleepover, yet the child they were visiting was in another room, presumably asleep too since he didn’t notice.

      Tragic regardless. But yes, something doesn’t add up.

      1. I think the way we approach our fears shows that for all of our intellectual prowess, we’re far more emotional and instinctual creatures than we like to admit. Hence why we have situations like you said, with dogs being the cars of the animal world: probably the most lethal thing we encounter in a given day, but few of us worry about it.

    1. I’ve been keeping an eye out for updates to the story to see what the autopsy reports say, but so far, nothing informative has been released about the attack itself. Most of the coverage now is talking about how the owner didn’t have the proper permits for a large constrictor and the fact that he had dozens of illegal reptiles. All of which indicates an irresponsible human . . . but does not explain an improbably violent snake.

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