30th March 2016
As Casey is busy settling into his new home I’ve been thinking about how utterly unsuitable this species is as a pet. Despite their undeniably sweet appearance there is a harsh reality to holding these wild animals in captivity. Before I go further it is worth a reminder that just because a new colour variety (breed, colour phase or “morph”) has been developed in a given species, or just because we’re had a handful of generations in captivity, that in no way means that a species is truly domesticated. Sugar Gliders ARE NOT domesticated; they are tame, habituated to human contact.
So lets say that you have ignored this fact and decided that a Sugar Glider is the pet for you. Here are some cold hard facts about having these pint sized marsupials in your home.
Sugar Gliders are active, opportunistic, hunters and their seasonably-variable omnivorous diet is impossible to replicate with 100% accuracy in captivity. Diet plans and care sheets for this species vary wildly and include anything from minced beef to yogurt to fast food! Now I’ve not been to Australia (the Glider’s native land) recently, but I can guarantee you that if should find yourself there you will never see a glider chewing on or drinking from a cow! I highly doubt you’d find one placing an order at a drive-through either. In reality Gliders have an incredibly varied diet that changes with the passing of the seasons and within different regions of their home range. They eat fruits, leaves, blossoms, nectar, tree saps, invertebrates, small mammals and reptiles and will even hunt birds, raiding their nests and taking the eggs, young and adults alike. In fact on the island of Tasmania, Gliders are an invasive species (introduced by pet owners over the centuries) and are quite literally eating the native Swift Parrot to the verge of extinction. You will need to prepare their nutritionally balanced diet EVERY DAY and serve it to them in a timely manner for optimum feeding and to avoid excess competition amongst group members; this is often something that owners find far to much to manage. Due to difficulties in providing the correct diet (and space to exercise) morbid obesity and related health issues which are life-limiting are rife in captive gliders.
Gliders MUST be kept in groups and therefore need a HUGE amount of space. Would you be able to convert a whole room of your house into a glider-safe enclosure?
Gliders breed with very little provocation and soon an owner can be overwhelmed with joeys. If a mixed sex group is the only option it is vital that the males are neutered before they have access to the females. These charming chappies aren’t picky about who they woo; girlfriend, sister, mother, cousin, it’s all the same to them! A mixed sex group with ALWAYS lead to “surprise” arrivals sooner of later and inbreeding al always a possibility unless the sexes are split or the boys are neutered. Females can be spayed but the operation is complicated and risky due to their pouch getting in the way, therefore is is always recommended that the boys have the snip instead.
Gliders are strictly nocturnal and you will not see them voluntarily in the daytime unless there is something seriously wrong with them. Some owners will artificially alter their Glider’s body clock by blocking out natural light and using lamps at night. This is highly unnatural and most definitely not recommended
These guys can and do bite, HARD! As active hunters they need killer teeth the physical configuration of which appears similar to that of rodents with a pair of long incisors in the centre of the lower jaw and upper mandible. Unlike rodents however, these teeth do not grow continuously throughout the animal’s life. They are very strong , capable of stripping bark from Eucalyptus trees and taking down struggling prey. It is easy to see how they are more than capable of drawing blood and taking a chunk out of your finger if they chose to do so.
Sorry guys but these innocent looking fur-balls are really rather smelly. This is much more apparent with the boys, particularly the mature males who will want to mark their territory. And, the more you clean up after them (thus removing the stink), the more they will want to mark! Scent is vitally important to Gliders with it playing a huge part in the forming of group dynamics and the identification of individuals as well as determining territorial boundaries. It never ceases to amaze me quite how far from their cage you can find their pee and droppings, I think about 5ft is the current record! They will also eliminate their bladder and bowels while glider... Just imagine that mess all over your living room carpet, yuk!
What they lack in size Gliders make up for in volume. They are very vocal creatures especially between each other and can be incredibly loud when they want to be. They have different vocalisations to communicate different “messages” from deterring predators, seeking cohorts, bonding with their young and even sounds for calling to each other through the forest. And they will do these in your home, at night, all through the night in fact if the mood takes them. Their barking, much like a small terrier type dog, can be very disruptive as can their “crabbing” sound (similar to an old fashioned football rattle) when they have a dispute in the group, or you annoy them! Both sounds are surprisingly loud and will easily keep you awake ALL NIGHT!
Many people erroneously believe that the proper way to raise Gliders is to “bond” with them at a young age. Essentially this means forcing human contact upon the Glider until it is accepted. I will not discuss these tactics here for fear that they could be replicated but believe me when I say that they are completely inappropriate and cruel. The result is an animal that doesn’t know if it’s keeper is a giant Glider or if it is a tiny human. Gliders raised in this manner are often almost totally deficient in Glider social skills and find it hard to form social relationships between their conspecifics. Further roof tat these animals are wild and are best left in their natural habitat where they belong.
Casey was found cold and alone on the street in Birmingham one night earlier this month. He had a laundry list of health problems including a broken tail, emaciation, dehydration, calcium deficiency and more along with being completely filthy and very scared. We believe that his terrible state of health was caused by improper husbandry and not necessarily exposure, although even a short amount of time outside in a rather chilly March will have taken it’s toll on this vulnerable little animal that is naturally suited to the positively barmy climes of eastern Australia! At this stage we can only speculate the circumstances that lead to Casey being found by a very surprised dog walker that night however given his poor health it is likely that his care simply became too much for his former owner and he was either turned loose or allowed to escape. It is not inconceivable to speculate that he could have broken free on his own but in his weakened state upon rescue we find this unlikely.
Casey was lucky to be found in the nick of time and has since begun his recovery journey, gained weight and been rehomed into a colony where he can begin to form proper relationships with other Gliders (after being neutered of course!). Please think long and hard before buying any non-domesticated animal as a pet and if things do get to be too much we beg you to seek help from the professionals before making a potentially life-threatening decision for your animal.
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Meet the Owner-Operator, Clare Barnard BSc.(Hons)
Clare is a research scientist and PhD candidate at the University of Lincoln where she is studying wildlife conservation and the direct impact of the exotic pet trade on wild animal populations. She will be working from the Laboratory of Evolutionary Ecology of Adaptations. Clare has also been honoured to become part of the Global Amphibian Biodiversity research team.
Clare has almost 20 years professional experience in the husbandry of exotic animals a specialism in the genetics of British herpetofauna. She has worked with wild Adders (Vipera berus) and endangered Natterjack Toads (Epidalea calamita) under Natural England license conditions. Clare has worked as a zookeeper and within private collections including her own. She lives in rural North Warwickshire, on-site at Grace's Rest, with a whole host of animals!