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Weird, cute big-eyed sugar gliders: the new pet craze

Sugar gliders — cute little marsupials from Australia and Indonesia — are an up-and-coming exotic pet in Atlantic Canada. But are they as sweet as they look?

Sugar gliders are super cute — but owners, vets and breeders warn they’re not for everyone

A sugar glider munches on a mealworm. With huge, wide-set eyes and oversized ears, it's a hard face to resist. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Giant, wide-set eyes. Twitchy little noses. Long fluffy tails.

Sugar gliders — named for their love of sweet food and flying-squirrel-like gliding abilities — have a cartoonish cute factor.

Introduced to the North American pet trade in 1994, they've recently been gaining popularity on the East Coast. Unlike other marsupials, they're legal to keep in all Atlantic provinces, including New Brunswick under the Fish and Wildlife Act.  

Dr. Frank Cook, a veterinarian at the Moncton Animal Hospital, has noticed an uptick in sugar gliders in his office — several in the past few months. He likened the current vogue for sugar gliders to the ferret craze of the 1990s.

A sugar glider, nicknamed Bailey, nestles into the clothing of breeder Gwynn Boyé. But don't be suckered in by that sweet face: for such a small animal, the marsupials are a huge commitment. (Julia Wright/CBC)

"They certainly are an up-and-coming exotic pet," he said. "They have the potential to become more popular here. Those big eyes looking at you, with the big space between them — it's pretty hard to resist that."

But sugar gliders are sweet by name, not necessarily by nature.

As the animals become more popular as pets, breeders, vets, and owners want to get the message out: while they can be rewarding pets, they're not for the faint of heart.

'She called him Demon'

Gwynn Boyé runs Fundy Sugar Gliders, one of the few breeders in Atlantic Canada.

A lifelong fan of exotic pets, she got her first sugar glider from an owner advertising him on Kijiji for re-homing.

The owner "called him Demon, because she thought he was possessed," Boyé said. The species's more unique traits include loud nocturnal barking and "crabbing" (a weird sound, like metal caught in a paper shredder) when annoyed.

Did we mention that they have sharp teeth and claws and can't be house-trained?

Bigger is better when it comes to sugar glider cages. Boyé keeps her sugar gliders in custom-built, floor-to-ceiling mesh reptariums, which can be dismantled and cleaned in the washing machine. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Boyé, on the other hand, was charmed. Demon's soft, grey fur reminded her of the pussy willows she used to collect as a kid.

"I like little, tiny fuzzy things," she said.

A decade later, she owns 10 sugar gliders: three breeding pairs, and a pet colony of four. One of the females recently gave birth to two joeys that Boyé nicknamed Barnum and Bailey.

She keeps them in a towering complex of mesh cages, which reaches to the ceiling of a spare room. They're filled with toys, snuggly fleece pouches, and hand-sewn accessories. During the day, the gliders tend to hang out nestled in a big ball inside their enclosures.

Fluffer, a two-year-old sugar glider, waits expectantly for a tasty mealworm treat. One thing would-be owners might want to consider is 'what [sugar gliders] might do to the smell of your home.' (Julia Wright/CBC)

Her two big dogs — a Saint Bernard named Dazey, and Tesla, a Bernese-lab cross — tend to steer clear. They're freaked out by the noises the sugar gliders make.

Since she started breeding them four years ago, Boyé has adopted out more than 100 sugar gliders to homes across Canada, from Newfoundland and Labrador to British Columbia. Depending on their markings and whether or they've been fixed, the price tag ranges from $300 to $500.

Boyé has also helped re-home some 30 gliders that were surrendered by their owners when the demands of the little animals became too much.

Boyé is sympathetic. While she adores the little guys, she said, they're definitely "not for everybody."

OK, why not?

Sugar gliders are peculiar little creatures.

To start, there's their diet: a special goulash of yogurt, eggs or chicken, applesauce, calcium and other vitamins, fresh fruit and veggies. As special treats, they get mealworms, hornworms, and beetles. Boyé keeps plastic trays full of live bugs for this purpose. But not too many. "They go straight to their hips," she said. 

They can't be kept by themselves — they need the company of at least one other sugar glider "or they lose their little minds," Boyé said. They can't swim, which means they can drown easily in, say, a toilet bowl if the seat is left up. They have a gremlin-like aversion to bright lights.

Mealworms and bugs are a favourite snack of sugar gliders. (Julia Wright/CBC)

What Cook, the vet, calls a "musky odour" emanates from from scent glands "on their forehead, near their front legs, and around the hind end.

"Sometimes I've heard the smell likened to the smell of a puppy," he said. (Boyé said neutering the males drastically reduces this.) They're nocturnal, which means they sleep all day and run around, barking and literally climbing the walls, all night.

"So if you're getting them for your five-year-old child, that's not going to be so great," Boyé said.

Gwynn Boyé, with Fluffer, started breeding sugar gliders as a hobby four years ago and hopes to collect one in every colour. (Julia Wright/CBC)

For a small animal, gliders have a remarkably long lifespan.

"Some live up to 16 years,"  said Boyé. "Eight to 12 is the average. It's a commitment, like a dog or a cat. It's not like a hamster that's going to die in two or three years."

Also like a dog, a glider needs a lot of human contact.

"If they aren't properly socialized they can be mean," Boyé said. "I've had some that were genuinely mean little buggers."

'My cat is terrified of them'

Katelyn Forbes of Fredericton knows some of the challenges firsthand.

She and her boyfriend own two sugar gliders: Julian, a 2 ½-year-old grey male, and Luna, a leucistic (all-white) one-year-old female.

Forbes's boyfriend ordered Julian from an online breeder, not fully prepared for everything the pet would need. Pretty soon, it became evident that Julian wasn't doing too well on his own.

"They have to be in pairs or they're prone to self-mutilate," said Forbes. "They will over-groom themselves and start biting themselves. Then they can get infections and eventually die. They can even stop eating. It's not good."

Once Forbes purchased Luna from Fundy Sugar Gliders, "it took two months to get them in the same cage together," Forbes said.

Fredericton sugar glider owner Katelyn Forbes with her two sugar gliders, Julian, left, and Luna. (Submitted by Katelyn Forbes)

"Now, they just love each other and are always with each other."

Forbes spends hours prepping fresh food for Julian and Luna, which she makes ahead of time and freezes in ice cube trays. Then there's cleaning the cages every morning, and playing with them for an hour every evening.

"My cat is actually terrified of them," said Forbes.

She has some advice for would-be owners.

"They are a lot to take on," she said. "I wouldn't trade them for the world and I love doing it, but a lot of people wouldn't be able to devote that much time to them."

Cook said they'd be great for someone who wants a needy, interactive pet they don't have to take for walks.

Fluffer chows down on a worm. Sugar gliders, like flying squirrels, have a patagium: a fold of skin between the foreleg and hind leg, pictured. In the wild, glide up to 50 metres from treetop to treetop. (Julia Wright/CBC)

"They fill a niche for people that really want to interact [with their pets] but maybe can't interact inside and out the way you would with a dog."

Boyé, a medic at Ambulance New Brunswick, recalled a military member with post-traumatic stress disorder who adopted two of her sugar gliders.

"[He] wanted them for therapy animals," she said. "Sugar gliders were his thing, and he absolutely adored them."  

In the wild sugar gliders eat flowers, nectar, eucalyptus tree sap, acacia gum, and insects. In captivity, they need a varied hash of yogurt, protein, vitamins, fresh fruit and veggies. They get mealworms, pictured, as a special treat. (Julia Wright/CBC)

If their popularity in the United States is any indication, sugar gliders will continue to make their way into more homes in Atlantic Canada.

"Ten years ago there were three people in the Maritimes that had them — and I was one," Boyé. said. "Now you're looking at a couple of hundred people."

They're also showing up in pet stores — a trend that deeply troubles Boyé. At a now-closed big-box pet store in Saint John, she said, employees "had no idea" about the sex of two sugar gliders priced at $400 each. They were also "too young … probably four to five weeks when I saw them, and scared to death."

A pair of five-week-old sugar glider joeys nicknamed Barnum and Bailey cuddle together. Sugar gliders must be kept in colonies of 2 or more or they 'lose their little minds,' said Boyé. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"They can't be socialized in a pet store, because pet stores are open in the day and full of bright lights — everything that they hate." 

People should never get a glider from the temporary kiosks some backyard breeders set up at fairs, or in shopping malls, where buyers have run into all kinds of serious problems.

"The advice I have for people who are thinking about getting them is to do a lot of research," Forbes said.

"Make sure that you can take care of them properly before you actually get one."

Sugar gliders need a lot of human contact. (Julia Wright/CBC)