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from The Denver Post


Owner killed by snake had been warned in '98

By Sheba R. Wheeler
Denver Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, February 12, 2002

- AURORA - The snake owner who died Sunday when his pet Burmese python strangled him had been ordered by a judge three years ago to get rid of a similar snake that was too large.

Officials aren't sure whether it's the same snake that killed Richard Barber, 43, of Aurora.

Barber died of asphyxiation when Monty, his 11-foot-long, 43-pound female snake, coiled herself around his head, neck and chest and squeezed him to death, according to an Arapahoe County Coroner's autopsy report released Monday.

Records show that Barber was found guilty in October 1998 of violating a city code that makes it illegal to keep a snake more than 6 feet long. He was ordered to take the snake out of the Aurora city limits, said Cheryl Conway, spokeswoman for the Aurora Animal Care Division. An anonymous caller had told division officials a large snake had been seen in Barber's backyard.

"He was given a month to relocate the reptile," Conway said. "Animal care went back out for a follow-up inspection Nov. 11, 1998, and we found that he had removed the snake."

The division is still investigating what caused Monty to become aggressive with her owner, who had apparently raised her from a baby.

Monty, believed to be about 5 years old, was resting comfortably Monday in a padlocked cage at Animal Care, her long, thick body coiled around a pink towel with a heating pad underneath to regulate her temperature.

The Denver Zoo will keep the snake for a couple of days and help it find a new home, according to spokeswoman Angela Baier.

"It's doubtful that any accredited zoo would want this kind of snake," Baier said. "It's not very common in zoos because they're common in the pet trade."

Authorities said Barber had taken Monty out of her cage Sunday afternoon and wrapped her around his neck to show his roommates. Suddenly, Barber's face contorted and he fell to the ground, a movement that may have frightened the snake and caused her to constrict, authorities said.

It took four firefighters and at least one police officer to pry the snake off Barber with their nightsticks.

As three firefighters rushed Barber upstairs to revive him, a firefighter left holding the snake was suddenly knocked off his feet when the snake coiled around his arm and began dragging him across the floor, said Rory Chetelat, spokesman for the Aurora Fire Department.

The firefighter eventually spotted a cage, and he steered the snake toward it until his colleagues came back and helped put the snake in its cage.

Conway said Burmese pythons do not make good long-term pets because they can grow up to 20 feet long and weigh 200 pounds, requiring at least one person for every 4 feet of snake to handle and support the reptile.

But Barbara Huggins, a licensed reptile rescuer, said the issue isn't whether people should be allowed to own them.

"The people who own them have to know what they are doing," she said. "There are at least hundreds of people who own these animals and never have had any trouble."

Burmese python owner Jay Barr, 20, of Longmont said a python can be a rewarding, social pet if cared for properly.

Barr, who volunteers at Colorado Reptile Rescue, has had his female python for two years since it was an 18-inch hatchling. The snake is more than 10 feet long and weighs about 35 pounds.

Burmese pythons are generally docile. They crave regular social interaction and can become alienated, edgy and aggressive when handled if they are kept primarily for display, Barr said.

Mark Berger, 23, of Colorado Springs, works with Colorado Reptile Rescue in that city. He said that in 2001, the city's organization took in 250 snakes, iguanas and other reptiles because people could no longer care for them.

"You can socialize a snake. You can't tame a snake. At any time, they can turn on you. Virtually every accident is because of an error on the owner's part," Berger said.

One other person in Colorado has been squeezed to death by a pet python. Derek Romero, 15, of Commerce City, was killed in 1993 when his family's 111/2-foot pet Burmese python crushed his torso.

Denver Post staff writer Jim Kirksey contributed to this report.

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