How Trends Drive Demand

Exotic Pets

Axolotl Popularity

“That looks like an axolotl!” “¡Un ajolote!” “These are the guys that can be pink and blue, right?” Our Reptile & Amphibian Conservation Coordinator Julia Geschke didn’t expect so many people – mostly children – to recognize a salamander model while speaking with guests at the Indianapolis Zoo. Almost everyone, if asked, thought the plastic version of a mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus – a salamander native to Indiana) was an axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum – native to Mexico.) The key feature they have in common is fluffy external gills, which they keep into adulthood and use to breathe underwater, as they are both fully aquatic species.

So why do so many people know about the axolotl? It’s not commonly encountered in the wild and is nearly extinct in its native range – the lakes and wetlands of central Mexico. Currently, it is categorized as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species because of observed population declines of more than 80% over the last few decades. Threats include urbanization and water pollution as well as predation and competition from invasive fish species.

However, the axolotl is extremely common in both the pet trade and in scientific laboratories. One of their incredible superpowers – the ability to regenerate body parts, including limbs and even pieces of their brain – makes them a desirable subject to study for human health applications. However, it’s only in the last few years that axolotls really exploded in popularity. One major cause for that is Minecraft – a massively popular video game with over 100 million active players (many of them children). The axolotl was added to the game in 2021 and comes in many colors, including blue. (Note that in real life there are no blue axolotls.) Due to their cute appearance, they have also been popular in TikTok videos and in other games.

Recent articles published by NPR and The Guardian describe the high demand for pet axolotls, the difficulty breeders have keeping them in stock, and subsequently, the large numbers of axolotls being surrendered to pet rescues. Like all exotic pets, axolotls have specific care requirements and should only be purchased after extensive research and thought. Their aquatic lifestyle means an axolotl owner will have a tank to maintain, which requires establishing a nitrogen cycle with colonies of beneficial bacteria that will turn harmful ammonia and nitrites into less harmful nitrates. Regular water changes are required, as well as filtration and sometimes extra steps and equipment depending on the quality of your local tap water. Axolotls are very prone to sickness, such as fungal infections or ammonia burn, when the water quality is poor. They also like their water to be on the cold side, so owners will need a way to keep the tank cool. And of course, they need to be fed every day or two, which often means handling worms. When axolotls are housed together improperly, it can often lead to injury or hundreds of fertilized eggs, which will turn into hundreds of baby axolotls that need a home.

Other Media-Driven Pet Trends

“I WANT ONE!” When we see a cute or cool animal on TV or in a movie, we often have an instinctive reaction of wanting one in our own homes. Many children were eager to own a percula clownfish or palette surgeonfish following the Finding Nemo and Finding Dory movies. Tiger King may have scared some people away from owning big cats, while others felt all the more passionate about keeping such predators (though private ownership of big cats will soon be illegal in the United States with the passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act). Even the owls from the Harry Potter franchise had people Googling to find out whether these nocturnal birds of prey were good as pets.

Social media plays a role as well. Perhaps you follow an influencer who posts regularly about their exotic pets, or you spot photos from a friend’s recent vacation in which they posed for photos with a monkey or parrot. Constant exposure to these curious, charismatic animals can lead to humans wanting to own them.

“Not a Pet”

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) – of which the Indianapolis Zoo is a member – recently launched a campaign aimed at educating animal lovers about exotic pets. In announcing the “Not a Pet” campaign, AZA quoted research showing that of the 68 percent of all U.S. households with at least one pet, more than 13 percent are considered exotic.

Exotic pets come with a host of challenges, from meeting their habitat and dietary requirements to concerns about zoonotic diseases and any physical dangers the animal might present. There are also legal considerations. Some states have laws against owning various exotic pets. And then there is the cost; many exotic pets come with big price tags for the animals AND the care they require.

Conservation Concerns

Here at the Global Center, our top concern when it comes to exotic pet trends is the impact on species. It’s all about supply and demand. While some species have robust supplies of captive-bred animals, others are exclusively acquired in the wild.

The Conversation recently reported on the “astonishing” global demand for exotic pets, and the U.S. is one of the biggest markets. Wildlife trade is big business and sometimes runs afoul of the law. It can “lead to diseases transmitted from wildlife to humans and threaten the welfare of trafficked animals.”

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) regulates the trade of species at risk. But CITES is limited. It lists less than 10% of all described plants and terrestrial vertebrates, less than 1% of all fish and invertebrates and no fungal species.

Our Invertebrate Conservation Coordinator Sérgio Henriques spoke on the subject this summer, focusing specifically on the trade of spiders and scorpions. His comments followed a publication in Nature that showed 79 percent of internationally traded arachnid species are not monitored. Without oversight, species might disappear before they are discovered by science. As Sérgio put it, that’s like “burning a book you haven’t yet read.”

While issues such as climate change and habitat destruction loom large when it comes to biodiversity loss, we can’t discount the role that wildlife trade plays. According to the Nature publication referenced above, the pet trade represents a potential threat to 17 percent of amphibians and 36 percent of reptiles. Reptiles, invertebrates and birds are among the most trafficked animals in the pet trade because of the ease of transport. The State Department estimates that as many as five million birds are traded illegally worldwide every year. Illegal wildlife trade as a whole generates between $7 – $23 billion annually.

Not Just Animals

Trade is a conservation issue for plants as well. Thousands of plant species are openly traded online, mostly collected from the wild with no or very little regulation.  Cycads – which are the world’s oldest seed-bearing plants and have been around since well before the dinosaurs – are believed to be the most endangered group of species on the planet, with two-thirds threatened by illegal trade. Succulents and orchids are also favorites when it comes to trafficking, with many species becoming extinct in the wild due to market demand, and rosewood trees are trafficked more than ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales combined. Interpol says timber trafficking accounts for 15-30 percent of the global timber trade. 


Pets should not be given as gifts unless the recipient has explicitly requested and prepared for the animal. The ASPCA adds that if the recipient is under the age of 12, the child’s caregivers should be ready and eager to assume care for the animal. Surprising someone with an animal they did not ask for, are not expecting or are unable to care for can lead to that animal ending up in a shelter or worse. The Humane Society suggests gifting pet supplies or offering to pay for adoption fees, then after the holiday, the whole family can go through the process of meeting potential pets and finding one to adopt.

If the pet or plant present is for yourself, or when you know the person really wants a pet as a present and is prepared to care for it, make sure you research in advance to ensure you are buying them from legal and sustainable sources.

Published December 16, 2022

Global Center for Species Survival

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