It is with great sadness we have learned that on Wednesday, October 30th, a woman was found dead at a reptile breeding facility in Oxford, Indiana. The victim was found unconscious with a reticulated python around her neck and shoulders, and efforts at resuscitation were unsuccessful. An autopsy to determine the official cause of death has been scheduled for Friday, November 1st.
The victim has been identified as Laura Hurst (Perdue), 36, of Battle Ground, Indiana. Our deepest sympathies go out to the family and friends of Ms. Hurst. This unfortunate incident appears to have involved the handling of a reticulated python of around eight feet in length while Ms. Hurst was alone in a reptile facility where she regularly volunteered. We have been informed that the many hours spent at this facility caring for the reptiles, which included some of her own pets, were an enormous source of joy and enthusiasm for Ms. Hurst. This great loss deeply saddens the reptile keeping community.
This is truly a tragic event, as is the premature death of any person, however it is important that constrictor snakes and the risks associated with keeping them are viewed with proper perspective. Fatalities from reptiles kept under human care have been, and remain rare incidents. This is confirmed in accident and emergency statistics which illustrate that modern herpetoculture (the keeping of reptiles and amphibians) is nearly devoid of serious incidents. Regarding reticulated pythons specifically, thousands of these animals are kept in the United States, with any incidents being exceedingly rare.
The United States Association of Reptile Keepers and our membership represent all aspects of reptile keeping and advocacy. It is because of our appreciation for these amazing animals, and the tremendous enjoyment which pet owners derive from their bond with their reptile pets, that we solidify our commitment to the responsible, proper, and humane keeping and care of reptiles. For certain species, such as the largest constricting snake species, certain management practices and operational procedures should be in place. Unfortunately, in this case, there was a violation of the facility’s established protocol to never handle larger animals unassisted. The owner of the facility where Ms. Hurst was found stated, “This was a terrible, unfortunate, and tragic accident. It was avoidable and we should never become overly confident with our animals to the point that we are avoiding safe handling procedures.”
We urge everyone in the herpetocultural community to become educated on proper handling protocols, techniques, and husbandry measures. Responsibility in animal ownership is paramount. Any facility workers or volunteers must be actively taught to minimize the already-small risks involved in keeping reptiles, with these precautions readily and frequently reviewed. Similarly, private keepers working with animals in their home should adopt formal protocols to mitigate any assumed risk.
In the wake of this heartbreaking loss, it is important to maintain both our composure and our compassion. The persecution of responsible reptile keepers and disproportionate restrictions on the ownership of these animals will sound appealing to some. With a knowledgeable perspective, these animals can be maintained without incident by utilizing sound practices and standards. Please make this the last instance of such a tragedy, by following established practices and protocols. We again extend our condolences to family and friends.
UPDATE: The preliminary autopsy results show the cause of death to be asphyxia. The final autopsy results will take four to six weeks.