You’re not likely to find a wild axolotl in its native Mexico, where the endangered amphibians are known as "walking fish." However, per the Guardian, you won't have much trouble finding one in New Zealand, where one animal rescue in the small city of Dunedin took in 600 of the creatures last week and now has some 2,000 in its care. The shelter's manager blames the increase on accidental breeding, as naïve owners fail to desex their pets and are unprepared for the huge number of eggs they produce (up to 1,500 in a single spawning, according to Reptile Magazine).
As to why axolotls are so popular, many people think they are cute because they appear to have a permanent smile affixed to their feathered faces. They are also interesting because they remain aquatic and gilled during adulthood. They're incredibly popular on TikTok, where #axolotl has 2.2 billion views and counting. But the true culprit behind the soaring popularity of pet axolotls appears to be Minecraft. The online children's game introduced axolotls as companion animals in 2021, sparking widespread interest that made the jump into the real world, where axolotls have indeed been bred as pets for decades.
But experts say axolotls have very specific needs and may not be ideal pets for many families, per Radio New Zealand. "I think parents may see them as an easy pet but realistically they're not," said the manager of Wellington Amphibian and Reptile Rescue, where 15 orphaned axolotls landed last week. Axolotls eat worms and snails, and they require water temperatures between 57°F and 64°F. By the way, they can also live up to 25 years. And they can pose environmental risks, which is why they're banned in many US states, including California, where—according to Axolotl Central—they "have the potential to easily outcompete already struggling native salamander species" if released into the wild. (Read more axolotl stories.)