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Pet python attacks girl

10-foot snake found wrapped around neck of 8-year-old; she is in a coma

Thursday, August 23, 2001

By Ginny Kopas and Dennis B. Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

An 8-year-old girl remained in a coma last night after her mother found her on the kitchen floor of their Irwin home yesterday morning with a 10-foot Burmese python wrapped around her neck.

The girl, Amber Mountain, was being treated at Children's Hospital..

The Burmese python was one of five large exotic snakes police found in the family's home, where they were called yesterday morning after Marcie Mountain found her daughter shortly after 11 a.m. and was able to pry the constrictor from her throat.

That's also about the time, neighbors said, that they saw Marcie Mountain running from the house to the Colonial Grille on Main Street, about a block away, where her husband, Robert, works as a cook.

Irwin Police Chief John Karasek said the snake apparently escaped from its tank, which was usually kept in the couple's bedroom.

Chad Mower, a captain with the Irwin Volunteer Fire Department, said emergency medical service workers found Marcie Mountain sobbing, standing just outside the front door when they arrived at about 11:15 a.m. They found Amber just inside.

Mower said the girl had no visible signs of injury but was not breathing and had no pulse.

"She was clinically dead," Mower said. "The snake was not around the kid's throat -- it was nowhere to be found."

Mower and his crew performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation en route to Jeannette District Memorial Hospital. Amber was taken by helicopter to Children's at about 1:30 p.m.

The girl's father, Robert Mountain, a snake enthusiast, has two Burmese pythons and three other large constrictors, which police identified as a jungle carpet python, a reticulated python and an amethystine python. There also were a number of lizards in the house.

The snake -- herpetologists estimate a 10-foot Burmese python would weigh about 40 pounds -- was removed by police, placed in a pillowcase and taken to Petpourri, an exotic pet store on Route 30 in North Huntingdon. While the Burmese is not known as an especially aggressive snake, yesterday's attack underscored what snake experts and hobbyists have long told their customers: This is not like buying a kitten.

"I don't care how long they've been in captivity, they're still a wild animal," said Billie Zulich, whose Bel Air, Md., reptile center sells various large constrictors, including Burmese pythons.

"It's something you've got to watch around kids. [The snakes] get big," said Ralph Zelik, who heads the animal rescue committee of the Western Pennsylvania Herpetological Society.

How the python got out of its cage and managed to attack Amber was not clear yesterday. But python experts say the snakes exert surprising strength and will strike at anything that smells like food.

"It's just like saying, 'Will somebody's dog bite?' It may be 12 years old and have never bitten, but it still has teeth," said Zulich.

Dolly Ellerbrock, president of the Pittsburgh Herpetological Society, said there are generally three reasons for a large constrictor to attack -- if it is hungry, angry or frightened.

In North America, at least two deaths have been reported when pythons attacked children.

Zulich said one friend has a 17-foot Burmese python and "she eats pigmy goats, four times a year." A 10- to 12-foot Burmese python will eat grown rabbits.

Irwin and North Huntingdon police and Westmoreland County detectives are trying to determine if any laws were broken. So far, police said, it appears there is nothing illegal in owning such exotic pets, and the family could get the python back.

Mary Benco, Irwin borough manager, said there is no law governing ownership of exotic pets. Borough ordinances do, however, monitor ownership of farm animals, and in recent years specifics for owning pit bulls were included.

Edward Gubanich, owner of Edwards Hair Salon next door to the Mountain home, said the Mountains were quiet neighbors who kept to themselves. He said Amber often played alone in the back yard and liked to imitate barking and meowing sounds of other pets in the neighborhood.

Patrons at the Colonial Grille said Mountain's daughter sometimes accompanied him on his morning shift, reading or coloring quietly at the counter. Marcie Mountain worked the night shift at a local grocery store.

Gubanich said he never saw Amber with the snakes. But some neighbors said Robert Mountain sometimes walked through the quiet downtown streets with a python or boa constrictor coiled around his body.

Burmese pythons purchased as pets in the United States generally are born and raised in captivity by breeders. In the wild, the snake has become endangered because its skin is prized for clothing accessories and its glands are used in folk medicines.

Staff writer Joel Rosenblatt contributed to this report.

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