Environment Canada said one of its wildlife officers brought the African rock python to Reptile Ocean in Campbellton 11 years ago, even though the species was banned in the province without a special permit.
Mark Johnson, a spokesman for the federal department, said in an email that Environment Canada was asked to help take the snake to Reptile Ocean after it was abandoned at the SPCA in Moncton, N.B. His email did not address why the department would transport a banned animal, but he said department records indicate Reptile Ocean was operating as a zoo when the snake arrived at the facility in August 2002.
New Brunswick's Department of Natural Resources said only accredited zoos can apply for a permit to own a banned species, including the African rock python in question.
But Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums said it is the only recognized national body to accredit zoos in the country and it has no record of Reptile Ocean ever applying for accreditation.
The Natural Resources Department declined to say whether Reptile Ocean was issued a permit for the python. But it has said it was unaware of the snake's existence until the deaths of four-year-old Noah Barthe and his six-year-old brother Connor this week.
No one from the department was made available for an interview. Spokeswoman Anne Bull declined to say in an email whether Reptile Ocean was ever considered a zoo, citing the ongoing police investigation and privacy concerns. She was unable to say whether unaccredited zoos can legally operate in the province.
Animal welfare advocates said the case in New Brunswick highlights major gaps in laws governing exotic animals.
"In this instance, there were laws prohibiting it, but clearly enforcement was either non-existent or inadequate," said Nick Wright, a lawyer and executive director of Animal Justice Canada.
"There's no uncertainty that the African rock python is a species that should not be permitted to be kept in captivity in the way that it was."
Melissa Matlow, a Toronto-based animal advocate, said she was appalled that the python would be taken to Reptile Ocean without the appropriate measures in place.
"If (that) is confirmed to be true, then it's shocking that Environment Canada would just drop a snake off at a place that sounds like it didn't have proper permits," said Matlow, a spokeswoman for the World Society for the Protection of Animals.
"I think our regulations are grossly inadequate across the country."
Harper said the federal government will determine whether it should play a role in the regulation of exotic pet shops.
"We're going to look at all that has happened here to get all of the facts," Harper said in Miramichi, N.B., after an unrelated funding announcement.
"My understanding is that these types of establishments are regulated mainly by provincial governments, but at our level as well, we will try to ascertain exactly what has occurred and if there is a federal role, what needs to be done about that."
Matlow said most provinces fail to properly inspect pet stores, zoos and other similar facilities, adding that in many cases, inspections are done only when a complaint has been made.
New Brunswick's Department of Natural Resources should have known there was an African rock python at the store in Campbellton, she said.
"There should have been an inspection and there should be an inventory of all the animals that he has there to ensure all the animals are legal and permitted."
The store is owned by Jean-Claude Savoie, a family friend of the boys who took them shopping and to a farm before hosting a sleepover Sunday along with his son. Savoie has not returned repeated messages for comment.
Zoo staff seized 23 reptiles and euthanized four alligators Friday that belonged to Reptile Ocean.
— With files from Michael Tutton in Miramichi, N.B., and Geordon Omand in Halifax
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