Nadine Comeau says selling axolotls — a smiley, Pokémon-like amphibian — throughout her home province of New Brunswick has been a heartwarming experience.
There’s just one problem — it’s illegal.
Comeau has been breeding the foreign salamander for six years, completely unaware of its unlawfulness because of a lack of enforcement from the provincial government.
“Axolotls are everywhere that the government can see them, but no one is doing anything,” said Comeau, who lives in Moncton, N.B.
She’s not the only one selling the exotic creatures.
Buying the gummy-mouthed amphibians with feathery gills has become popular in New Brunswick and other provinces like Nova Scotia and British Columbia, with pet shops and breeders selling out shortly after they introduce them into their aquariums.
There are hundreds of people in axolotl groups on Facebook, where much of the trading takes place.
Part of the hype is their similarity to pop culture characters like Toothless from the movie How To Train Your Dragon.
But unbeknownst to most, axolotls can carry diseases such as the chytrid fungus that, if released into the wild, “could hugely increase mortality” in native species of salamanders, said Don McAlpine, curator of zoology at the New Brunswick Museum.
In 2017, the New Brunswick government introduced legislation that lists the exotic animals that can be legally kept as pets.
The act was created in response to the tragic 2013 incident in which two Campbellton kids were killed at home by an escaped pet python.
Axolotls are not included on that list, which means New Brunswickers need a special permit to own them. But the enforcement of the act as it pertains to axolotls has been non-existent.
Exotic animal hobbyist Emily Davies said the government’s lack of enforcement is a slap in the face to animal conservationists.
Davies has been emailing the Department of Natural Resources for months about the issue, but her attempts have led nowhere.
All she has received are a few emails acknowledging her concerns.
“It’s very much a present issue in the province, but there’s no light shed on this and they’re a risk to our native salamanders,” said Davies, who has worked with the New Brunswick SPCA treating lizards, birds and fish.
Kathryn Collet, who oversees the exotic wildlife committee of the New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources, was not available for a comment. The department refused to offer anyone else for comment.
Graham Forbes, director of the New Brunswick Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Centre, said axolotls originate from a few lakes in Mexico and are now virtually extinct in the wild.
However, they are being bred in labs to be used in scientific research because of their ability to regenerate limbs, and in homes to be sold as pets.
Even though axolotls are cold-water creatures, Forbes believes it would be quite hard for them to get established in New Brunswick and become a problem.
“But they really shouldn’t be part of the pet trade,” he added.
Forbes said if released into the wild, “there’s a concern about salamanders in general and a fungus that can be associated with species from other countries, and if that got into our native salamanders, that could wipe them out.”
Comeau has travelled across the Maritimes selling axolotls.
Six years ago, she bought four axolotls from a breeder in Ontario for $20 each. She accidentally started breeding them after putting the four of them in a 55-gallon fish tank together.
Most of Comeau’s axolotl business is done through Facebook. After posting photos of the axolotls for the first time, people from all over the province reached out.
“They were really impressed because they’re very rare little creatures,” she said. “People would say, ‘Oh, they are so cute. What are they?”
But many times, people would buy axolotls without doing the proper research. A few months later, her customers would return them, saying they couldn’t take care of them. Axolotls require special care, such as a cold water environment.
But Comeau doesn’t believe anyone has ever tried to release their axolotl into the wild.
She has stopped breeding axolotls during the pandemic because she can’t travel, but hopes to start back up some day.
“But if they are very much illegal, I obviously won’t,” she said.