British Columbia

'Real-life Pokémon' growing in popularity as pets, despite restrictions

A small community of pet owners love these gummy-mouthed amphibians that look like a real-life Pokémon, but buyer beware, they require a permit in B.C.

Buyer beware — in B.C., these exotic amphibians require a permit

The axolotl is an amphibian native to Mexico where, in the wild, it is an endangered species. In Canada, it has been used extensively in scientific research and is becoming increasingly popular as a pet. (AJC1/Flickr)

Axolotls — a small, gummy-mouthed amphibian that looks a little like a real-life Pokémon — might be growing in popularity across the country, but in B.C., the pets are considered exotic and require a permit.

George Sebastian, who owns and breeds axolotls, got his first axolotl three and a half years ago and is part of a small but growing community of axolotl owners.

"People always say that they're either the cutest thing that they've ever seen, or the ugliest thing they've even seen," he said. "I think they're very cute."

The axolotl — a.k.a. the Mexican salamander or Mexican walking fish — originates from just a few lakes in Mexico.

Originally, the axolotl was imported into Canada and large numbers have been bred and used in scientific research because of its ability to regenerate limbs and even organs. Some have even been genetically modified to take on strange qualities, like glowing under a black light.

Sebastian believes most of the different varieties were created in laboratories. Eventually, they were introduced into the pet trade.

This axolotl has been genetically modified to glow under a black light. (Connecticut College/YouTube)

Growing popularity

The axolotl's odd looks coupled with the fact that it is relatively easy to care for and breed has resulted in an increase in its popularity.

Forums, listservs and Facebook groups dedicated to the amphibian have proliferated, and the pet is easily available for sale on Craigslist and Kijiji and some pet stores.

Sebastian said he always gets inquiries about his "real-life Pokémon."

"I would definitely say that they are becoming very mainstream," he said. "People are always commenting on the photos that my friends and clients post and asking 'What is that thing and where can I get one?'"

But even if it's easy to obtain, the axolotl is subject to legal restrictions in B.C.

It's something Sebastian only recently found out.

Legal status in B.C.: murky

B.C. has some of the strictest exotic animal laws in Canada. The province requires people to obtain a permit to possess certain pets.

But B.C.'s animal laws can be confusing to interpret. axolotls aren't explicitly restricted in the legislation, and many axolotl owners — including Sebastian — were unsure of the pet's status.

A Ministry of Forests, Land and Natural Resource Operations spokesperson told CBC News that any species under the family Ambystomatidae — which includes axolotls — requires a permit to possess, sell, breed, traffic or transport.

For Sebastian who doesn't currently have a permit for his axolotls, this clarification means re-evaluating his options.

"If possible, I will apply for a permit to be able to keep them," he said. "But depending on what I find out, my pets might end up being homeless in the future, which is something I really don't want to see happen."

Axolotls have been extensively used in scientific research giving them a variety of different qualities. (Anthony Sokolik/Flickr)

Difficult to get a permit

Rebekah Breder, a lawyer who specializes in animal law, said getting such a permit will not be easy.

"The starting point of an exotic animal is that you're not allowed to have him or her," she explained. "Getting a permit is not something that happens within 24 hours."

As for why so many axolotls are easily available, Breder speculated it might be because the government doesn't have the resources to enforce the regulations or prioritize education around legality.

Personally, she said she would dissuade people from getting an axolotl in the first place.

"I would always discourage people from getting any type of exotic or exotic-type of animal because, in my view, they should be out in the wild and not kept indoors in a totally non-native and unnatural environment."