Are Axolotls Illegal in California?

by LegalFix
Posted: October 14, 2022
exotic pets

When it comes to interesting pets, axolotls are tough to beat. Sometimes called “walking fish,” these creatures are actually members of the salamander family. Unique among other amphibians, axolotls spend their entire lives in water, living on a diet of worms, mollusks, and insects. Even when mature, axolotls have all the features of tadpoles, like feathery gills and a quill-like dorsal fin.

While axolotls are endangered in the wild, these special salamanders are relatively easy to care for at home, needing only a large, temperature-controlled, and filtered tank, making them appealing to people looking for a pet that nobody else has. As great an idea as it may seem on the surface, however, keeping one in your home might get you in trouble with the law. 

Laws Around Owning “Exotic” Animals

Owning any animal involves work and risks. Because of the potential dangers to both animals and their owners, there are many laws around which kinds of pets are allowed and how they need to be cared for. Most states simply restrict possession to certain species, but some prohibit the possession of wild or exotic animals outright.

Even where unusual pets are allowed, there are many exceptions and qualifications that apply to exotic species. Possessing some types of exotic animals is limited to people who plan to use them for exhibition, scientific, or educational purposes. The majority of state and local governments require various permits, licenses, or registration papers to keep these animals. 

While the federal government does not restrict the ownership of specific species on a national level, the US Customs and Border Protection Agency does have a number of requirements for the safe, humane import of any live animals. These laws apply to common domestic species, like cats and dogs, as well as to more exotic animals. 

California’s Axolotl Laws

Native to Mexico, axolotls are considered a critically endangered species due to loss of habitat and urbanization, and most that are available on the pet market descend from captive-bred animals that were originally used in scientific research. Now, more axolotls exist in captivity than in nature, and the pet trade has done a lot to keep these animals alive. 

While they are legal to own in many places in the United States, state and local laws differ. Unfortunately for Californians, axolotls do fall into the category of banned animals according to California law. Other states, including Maine, New Jersey, and Virginia, also ban the ownership of axolotls as pets. In New Mexico, interestingly enough, owning an axolotl is not against the law, but you can’t legally import them from other states where they’re allowed. 

California’s Animal Laws Compared to Other States

As we mentioned above, not all state laws are on the same page. Compared to other states, the California Natural Resources Agency is fairly restrictive. The state’s Restricted Species Laws and Regulations Manual 671 has banned most kinds of wild animals — including seals, bighorn sheep, otters, ring-tailed cats, wolverines, elephants, falcons, and any marsupials — from being kept as pets. Other, even more common pets are also banned under California’s laws, such as ferrets, gerbils, owls, hedgehogs, anteaters, and any primates.

While this may be discouraging, laws around exotic pet ownership are idiosyncratic. Many unusual species can be legally owned, even if they may seem less logical or safe than axolotls or ferrets. Zebras, monitor lizards, camels, and even American bison are all included in the list of unusual animals that are allowed as pets in California. 

Additionally, in many states, if you owned an exotic animal before a specific cut-off date, you may be grandfathered in and allowed to keep the animals you have — assuming you registered them and obtained all relevant permits in time. Some species are also only banned in their first generation, meaning that the descendants of already captive animals are allowed, if their background can be proven.

 Exotic animal laws clearly vary widely from state to state. So when it comes to deciding whether to get an axolotl, ferret, or any other animal to keep in your home, doing your research is vital. Getting to know all relevant laws and information can not only prevent you from ending up on the wrong side of exotic animal regulations, but it can also ensure that you’re following all relevant pet ownership guidelines for any animal in your life. 

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