There are thousands of pythons of the type that killed two little boys in New Brunswick Monday, but a fatal attack on humans is extremely rare, experts say.

Police in Campbellton, N.B., said a snake escaped its enclosure at an exotic pet store at some point in the night and travelled through the building’s ventilation system to an apartment upstairs. The boys, aged 5 and 7, were found around 6:30 a.m.

Both had been strangled by the snake.

The animal was later identified as an African rock python, one of the largest snake breeds in the world.

While it sounds exotic, there are “thousands and thousands and thousands” of pythons in homes across Canada, according to Bry Loyst, curator of Ontario’s Indian River Reptile Zoo.

“They’re not rare at all,” Loyst said in a telephone interview. “You can buy them everywhere. They are all over Canada.”

The snakes are easily purchased, Loyst said, because most provinces do not have laws controlling exotic animals. Rather, would-be owners are subject to whatever city by-laws are in place where they live.

Despite their prevalence across Canada, Loyst said, “they don’t attack people and try to kill them intentionally.”

“We’re not on their menu. Snakes don’t eat people.”

Loyst’s theory in the New Brunswick case is that the snake mistook one child for food, bit him and began to coil around him and then wrapped up the second child, as well.

“(Snakes) mistake you for food,” Loyst said. “So for all we know these kids had chicken for dinner and they smelled like chicken.”

Another renowned snake expert says the New Brunswick case may be the first time a snake has killed two people at once.

Paul “Little Ray” Goulet, owner of Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo, said the incident was not a defensive attack.

“When they grab and asphyxiate an animal by squeezing it as hard as they can, that’s not a self-defence action, that’s a feeding response,” Goulet said in a telephone interview. “For self-defence, a snake will bite and let go, bite and let go, bite and let go -- and I mean bite and immediately let go.”

It also doesn’t make a difference whether the animal was over- or under-fed, both men agree, because snakes do not seek out their food, they lie in wait before ambushing their prey.

“They don’t move much,” Loyst said. “They wait for food to come to them, they are opportunistic feeders.”

Pythons in captivity eat mice and rats when they are younger and move on to chickens and rabbits as they get older, he said.

Goulet said such incidents are extremely rare, especially considering that thousands of large snakes are sold across North America every year.

He does not condone keeping large snakes as pets, “because they are large, very powerful animals.” But anyone who does must ensure that “if that animal gets out of its enclosure, there’s no way the snake can leave the room it’s in or the facility that it’s in.”

Many professional facilities will have a double-door system as an extra safeguard against human error, such as someone forgetting to lock a gate, he said.

With files from Michael Stittle