Why an 8-Foot Pet Python May Have Killed Its British Owner

By constricting their bodies, this species of python is capable of killing quickly.

Published 29 Jan 2018, 21:49 GMT
African rock pythons are the largest species of snake in Africa.
African rock pythons are the largest species of snake in Africa.
Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

Since his death, the photo has been all over the Internet.

Dan Brandon stands with his large, 8-foot long yellow python "Tiny" wrapped around his shoulders.

It's the same snake that would be found on August 25, coiled in the corner of his room while Brandon laid dead on the floor.

Brandon's mother, Babs, tells the Guardian that she was making dinner in their home in Hampshire, England, when she heard a thud come from Brandon's room.

The Coroner's Report

Brandon was an experienced snake owner who had kept them for years. Authorities immediately suspected Tiny was the culprit, but it wasn't until this week that a coroner confirmed that cause of death.

During a postmortem exam, a pathologist found that Brandon's lungs were heavier than expected and that he had pinpoint hemorrhages in one eye. The pathologist indicated these were signs Brandon died by asphyxiation.

This lung and eye damage could have been caused by pressure applied to the chest or neck, but Brandon was found without physical markings in either area.

Still, the coroner concluded that the python was involved in Brandon's death.

"He made clear he did not believe the snake had been aggressive towards its owner, but the most likely scenario was that the reptile had been coiling around him in an affectionate way," the Guardian reported.

African Rock Pythons

Tiny is an African rock python, a species of snake with an especially formidable reputation. It's the largest snake in Africa and can grow to be 20 feet long.

In 2013, a snake of the same species killed two boys in Canada.

These pythons are a type of snake called a constrictor, which kills by cutting off blood circulation. They don’t, despite popular misconceptions, typically kill by suffocating their prey.

"Is it impossible? No," says snake expert and Dickinson College professor Scott Boback. But, he adds, "The scientific evidence to date would suggest snakes don’t kill by asphyxiation. It suggests they kill their prey by cardiac arrest."

With eight feet of muscle, constrictors can constrict blood flow to the brain in a matter of minutes.

"Your brain is such an oxygen hog, that if you deprive it of oxygen there's a mechanism in your body that just sort of shuts off," he says.

Exactly how long it takes for constriction to cause death isn't quite known, but a person can lose consciousness from this in seconds.

"Disruption of blood flow and brain function can cause unconsciousness and become lethal much faster than suffocation alone," says Brad Moon, a National Geographic explorer who's authored several papers on how snakes kill by constriction. He adds that constriction around the torso can put pressure on internal organs and damage blood vessels like the hemorrhages found in Brandon's eyes.

"The constriction pressure would have caused asphyxiation, compounded by the faster effects of disrupted blood flow and possibly disrupted neural function," says Moon.

What Was Tiny Doing?

While the coroner hypothesised that Tiny was showing some sort of affection, Boback says that's likely a mischaracterisation.

Affection, as we refer to it, generally refers to physical contact to express some sort of bond. Snakes, and other reptiles in general, aren't known to typically show these behaviours.

Boback offers another theory: It's possible, he says, that Tiny felt she was going to fall.

"They attempt to grab onto things because they feel nothing is supporting them," he says. "If they're in a tree and suddenly a branch moves or breaks, they're going to try to grab hold with the part [of their body] touching the tree."

Moon agreed that snakes don’t show affection in the same way the word is used to describe cats or dogs.

"They may become familiar with their owners or keepers, particularly by their smells, and may rest on them for warmth or just climb on them for activity whenever they are being handled," he says.

He adds that there are two common reasons pet snakes constrict their owners—they may constrict out of fear, or when they smell prey, and their predator instincts are triggered.

"So it's possible that the snake constricted Brandon because of being startled or shifting to predator mode," he said.

"We know large constrictors can be dangerous to people. It seems like every few years a person is killed by a large boa constrictor or python, usually a captive snake, but once in a while a snake in the wild," adds Moon.

A JustGiving page was set up after Brandon's death. People were asked to donate money that would be sent to the World Wildlife Fund and a conservation group called the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

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