As the sky grows dark, the sugar gliders wake. Chirping and barking, crawling and leaping, these small, nocturnal marsupials are becoming increasingly popular pets in the United States.
“They’re such good companions,” said Brittany Landry, who started breeding sugar gliders about a year ago at her home in Skowhegan.
Now the proud owner of Tree Top Suggie Shoppe, Landry sells young sugar gliders that she socializes from birth, as well as line of toys she creates specifically for the species.
Sugar gliders are on Maine’s unrestricted species list, along with animals like gerbils and rabbits, which means that residents do not need to acquire a special permit to purchase or own them. But that doesn’t mean they’re an easy species to care for. In fact, sugar gliders have quirks and special needs that many people wouldn’t want to deal with. For example, they can make a lot of racket at night, when they’re most active. They also require a special diet.
“They’re so rewarding for the people who can make them work,” Landry said. “But they aren’t for everybody.”
Native to Australia and New Guinea, sugar gliders are small, gliding opossums. In the wild, they spend their lives in the trees, soaring from branch to branch. Just like a flying squirrel, a sugar glider has a membrane that spans from its front leg to its back leg on both sides. So when they jump and extend their legs, the membrane flattens out and catches the wind, allowing them to glide for long distances.
With big eyes and ears, a fluffy tail and a tiny, whiskered snout, the sugar glider scores high on the cuteness scale, which makes it particularly susceptible to becoming an impulse buy. But Landry cautions people to do plenty of research about the species before deciding if it’s the right pet for their home.
“Unfortunately there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about them,” said Landry, “but they are getting more popular, so hopefully more knowledge [about them] is getting out there to people.”
While sugar gliders look like flying squirrels, the two species are not closely related. Squirrels are rodents, while sugar gliders are marsupials, meaning they raise their young in a pouch, like a kangaroo. They have a partially prehensile tail, which they use for balance and interaction with other gliders, and they mark their territory and colony members with scent glands, similar to house cats. They also have noticeably large and round eyes, which enable them to see well at night, when they are most active.
“They just fascinate me,” Landry said. “Their anatomy, their behavior, everything about them.”
Landry started researching sugar gliders a few years ago when she decided to move on from years of owning chinchillas, which are large, fluffy rodents originating from The Andes.
“After 10 or 11 years, my chinchillas, they started to pass away,” she said. “I got, you know, kind of bummed, and I said, ‘Well, maybe it’s time to check out a new animal.’ And I started reading about [sugar gliders].”
She purchased her first sugar glider through Craigslist. Then, about a month later, she purchased another one because sugar gliders are social creatures and can actually become depressed if living alone in a cage, regardless of how much human attention they get. Then, in a matter of months, she received two gliders from someone who purchased them without understanding the commitment of caring for them.
“She had them for just a couple of weeks,” Landry said. “Then she gave them to me, and everything she bought for them.”
Sugar gliders are typically kept in large, tall wire cages filled with toys, wheels, fleece beds and hammocks and other items that keep them active. They can also be taken outside their cages to play if under constant supervision.
About a year ago, Landry then took a big leap from owner to breeder by purchased a mating pair. Since then, her “colony” has rapidly grown. She’s sold a few of her young gliders, known as “joeys,” and she’s kept a few, finding them difficult to let go of once she’s formed a strong bond with them.
“They develop deep emotional attachments to their cagemates and their caretakers,” she said.
On Jan. 3, her colony consisted of 12 gliders, including a joey up for adoption at $300. The door to their room was closed to keep out the cold air as they slept the day away, cuddled together in fleece sacks. Divided among five tall, wire cages, the gliders slept in twos and threes. A humidifier was running, keeping the air moist, and the heat was kept above 72 degrees at all times. They’re tropical creatures, after all.
They wake at 9 p.m., Landry said, although the joeys tend to sleep in until around 11 p.m. They stretch, bark, run in their exercise wheels and play with their toys, of which they have many. Landry constructs dangling toys for them out of plastic chains and a wide variety of plastic and wood components, including cat toys and second-hand toddler toys that she buys at Goodwill.
On Jan. 3, one of their cages contained a plastic doll house, big enough for them to explore the rooms, and another cage contained a Mr. Potato Head, one of their favorite toys, according to Landry. They like to carry around and stash his many plastic attachments.
“They like to carry [plastic] bracelets with their tails and bring them back to the pouch,” she said.
After a couple of weeks, she said she notices that they lose interest in their toys, so she switches them among the cages and is constantly creating new toys for her own sugar gliders and her small shop.
Evening time is also when she feeds them.
“They eat a staple diet that was formulated for sugar gliders,” Landry explained. “It’s a supplement powder that comes from Australia that has acacia and dried gums and whatnot in it, and I have to mix that with scrambled eggs and honey. And then they get fresh fruits and vegetables every night, they get about a tablespoon per glider.”
And every once in a while she’ll throw in a special meal of worms or cockroaches, which they especially seem to enjoy. And frequently, she carries her gliders out into the living room, where she and her husband have set up a latticework of branches suspended just under the ceiling. In the corner is a fake tree with thick, twisted branches wrapped in fleece and adorned with toys. And each mirror and picture on the walls is secured so it doesn’t tip when a sugar glider inevitably glides onto a corner of its frame.
But their favorite thing to crawl on is Landry. Having formed a connection with her, they climb all over her shoulders and arms. They groom her hair and nestle into her shirt. And often, they’ll glide right onto her, landing on her chest or back with a thump that startles her every time.
With good care and no health issues, sugar gliders live 12 to 15 years, so she has plenty of time to get used to their antics.
To learn more about sugar gliders, Landry suggests visiting www.glidernursery.com or the Facebook page “Sugar Gliders: ABC’s and 123’s.”
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