Sugar glider group talks about high-maintenance but rewarding pets

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published November 7, 2012

 Kahlua is a sugar glider belonging to Karen Milas, president of The Glider Initiative, a group that rescues the small creatures and finds them loving homes.

Kahlua is a sugar glider belonging to Karen Milas, president of The Glider Initiative, a group that rescues the small creatures and finds them loving homes.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

MADISON HEIGHTS — When Guardians for Animals and its affiliate rescues came to Madison Place for their annual Pet Expo Oct. 27-28, they split the convention hall in half, with a vendors market on one side and adoptions on the other.

Yet those who went shopping in the market may have noticed a couple ladies off in one corner who weren’t selling anything — and if they caught them at the right moment, shoppers may have noticed something resembling a flying squirrel sitting in one woman’s bra, peeking out of her shirt.

The group was The Glider Initiative, or TGI, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit shelter and rescue based in Redford. Their mission is the rescue, rehabilitation and adoption of sugar gliders, a marsupial closer in relation to a kangaroo or possum than any squirrel.

They’re nocturnal creatures, native to the South Pacific — Australia, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands and the like — and are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.

They have five fingers on each hand and opposable thumbs, can cling to just about any surface, and glide up to 250 feet in the wild using the webbing between their limbs, while their tail acts like a rudder to adjust their course midflight.

With their pointy pink snouts, bulbous black eyes and wide faces that scrunch up as they back up into the fleece pouches carried by their owners, they’re absolutely adorable, making a soothing clicking sound when content — the equivalent of a cat’s purring.

They get to know their owner’s scent and are perfectly at ease sitting with people, once they are familiar to them. They’ll sit on people’s shoulders or cling to their backs upside-down. 

But they’re also high-maintenance creatures that live 10-12 years. Irresponsible pet mills breed sugar gliders by the boatload, peddling them off at malls and other venues, only for unprepared owners to realize they’re not a simple pocket pet.

Thus, many sugar gliders are abandoned and end up in the care of groups like TGI, an affiliate of Kingdom Kritters in Texas. When they adopt out sugar gliders, it’s a six-month process where they make sure the new owner is ready. They also emphasize adopting sugar gliders in pairs, since they’re sociable creatures that could literally die of loneliness if left by themselves.

Trying to educate the general public on these matters is why TGI was at the Pet Expo.

“I compare sugar gliders to having a two-year-old for the next 10 years,” said Karen Milas of Redford, president of TGI. “If you’re willing to make that kind of commitment, then you’re ready for sugar gliders.”

The commitment includes giving them a spacious cage filled with toys they can manipulate so they’re not bored and they don’t over-groom, letting them out of their cage for an hour or two of supervised playtime each night in a “glider-proofed” room where vents and other small openings are sealed off so they don’t slip in, and giving them a steady diet that includes a protein source and fresh fruits and vegetables.  

They sleep during the day and wake up around 7 p.m., perfect for someone who works a 9-to-5 schedule, provided they can spend an hour with them each night. At that point, they run in their wheel, play with their toys and each other, and fill up on food.

Their droppings are simple pellets like a hamster’s, and their grooming habits are hyper-hygienic, to the point their chinchilla-like fur is devoid of dander. As such, many people who tear up around cats and dogs are fine around sugar gliders.

They’re also perfect for people with deep anxiety issues. Sara Douglass, a TGI member who lives in Auburn, N.Y., is one such person.

“I’ve had gliders about two or three years now, and I’ve had an anxiety and panic disorder for a lot longer than that,” Douglass said. “I will sometimes bring them to work with me, if I have a day where I know I’ll be high anxiety and it’ll be quiet. I’ll put some in their zippered pouches and bring them with me because they don’t do anything; they just sleep, but they’re a comfort for me because I can see them, and know they’re there.”

She can also hear their content clicking. Sometimes she’ll simply sit on the couch with a pouch full of sugar gliders in her lap, and the sound sooths her and helps her to decompress and refocus when her mind is whirling with anxiety.

Sugar gliders aren’t comfortable with people by default; strangers must be aware that, from the glider’s point of view, anyone new is like Godzilla: a giant monster that in the wild might be a bird of prey. One must let the glider come to them, smell them and identify them as a friend. Once bonded, gliders are perfectly at ease with their owner.

Care must also be taken to make sure that any two gliders are suited for one another, which is one of the reasons the adoption process is so long. Gliders are best sent to homes in pairs, but each couple must be compatible or they may attack each other.

It can be two males, two females, or a male and a female — if the male is neutered, to avoid them reproducing like rabbits. Once they’re buddies, they’ll play together, groom each other and sleep in a heap in their pouch.

In southeast Michigan, there are only a few vets who see sugar gliders. Milas recommends one in Canton, and another in Ann Arbor. Their yearly wellness check might be a bit of a drive, but they don’t need shots or anything of the sort, she said.

They may seem like a lot of work, requiring you to give them proper exercise so they don’t get spastic, just like you’d walk a dog to get out its jitters. But their upkeep isn’t rocket science, Milas said.  

“What you put into them, you’ll get triple back,” Milas said. “They are fantastic animals. It’s just a matter of knowing what you’re getting into.”

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