Two young boys sleeping at their friend's home above an exotic pet store were strangled by a python that escaped its enclosure in the Canadian town of Campbellton, New Brunswick, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said Monday.
"The preliminary investigation has led police to believe that a python snake escaped its enclosure in the store sometime overnight," said Constable Julie Rogers-Marsh, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported. Police were notified about 6:30 a.m.
A former employee of Reptile Ocean told the National Post that the snake was an African rock python between 14 and 16 feet long. Initial reports incorrectly stated it was a boa constrictor.
The unidentified boys were 5 and 7 years old, the RCMP said. They were believed to be brothers who were on a sleepover at the owner's apartment, according to the National Post.
Rogers-Marsh said it was not yet clear how the non-venomous snake escaped. It apparently traveled through the ventilation system and crushed the boys as they slept. Autopsies will be conducted Tuesday.
The python, the only large snake in the store, was captured and turned over to police.
Store owner Jean-Claude Savoie told Global News he discovered the grisly scene in the living room, which the python entered through a hole in the ceiling.
"My body is in shock. I don't know what to think," he said. "I thought they were sleeping until I (saw) the hole in the ceiling. I turned the lights on and I (saw) this horrific scene."
He said he considered the two boys "like they're my kids."
Savoie, who pinned and caged the python, said no one normally handles the snake, which he described as "vicious." Former store employee Tim Thomas told the National Post that "every cage had two locks on it." The store also has two enclosures for crocodiles.
In the wild, African rock pythons feed on monkeys, antelopes, warthogs and even crocodiles. In suburban areas, their prey includes dogs, goats, rats or fowl.
They rarely attack humans, but when they do, the victims are typically children.
The town of around 7,000 people, in far eastern Canada, "is in shock," said Campbellton Deputy Mayor Ian Comeau.
Reptile Ocean, on its Facebook page, calls itself an exotic pet store "open to the public for purchase and viewing." It opened in 1995 and is categorized as "noncommercial zoological gardens."
Comeau noted that the snakes have been imported legally only since 2009.
In South Florida on Monday, police captured a 14-foot-long Burmese python that a homeowner found while cleaning out his shed.
In January, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission held a month-long competition to capture and kill invasive Burmese pythons in the Everglades.
But Florida wildlife officials say African rock pythons pose an even bigger threat to the state and are more dangerous than their Burmese cousins.
"This is just one vicious animal," Kenneth Krysko, a herpetologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, said in a 2009 National Geographic article. He said African pythons are "so mean they come out of the egg striking."