COLLEGE PARK – When Kristin Foster wants to spend time with her pets, she doesn’t go for a walk or play fetch with them.
Instead, the 22-year-old from Maugansville puts her two sugar gliders, Gizmo and Jumping Jack Flash, in a fleece pouch and hangs it around her neck, carrying the two animals with her everywhere she goes.
Sugar gliders, small marsupials native to parts of Australia, Tasmania, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, have recently become popular as household pets in North America.
While sugar gliders were originally imported, private owners and some small companies have begun to breed them in Maryland and other parts of the United States.
“Gliders have been around for the last 15 years, [but] they’re just taking off now,” said Mercer Smith, 42, who breeds sugar gliders in Baltimore.
Because sugar gliders are exotic animals, breeders face more confusing and complex standards than people who breed traditional household pets like cats and dogs.
Although most states allow individuals to own sugar gliders, some of those states do not allow breeding or selling. Maryland allows both.
Sugar gliders are classified as small exotic animals under the federal Animal Welfare Act and breeders are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Every state has the authority to regulate the animals within that state,” said Dave Sacks, a USDA spokesman. But if the state allows breeding or selling, “Then you would need to apply for a license with us at the USDA. Our regulations have to stretch across the board.”
Nikki Levin, 27, has owned sugar gliders for approximately two and a half years and has been breeding them for two years. She is the only USDA-certified breeder in Maryland.
“You get someone that… comes out every six months, does an inspection and lets you know if you pass or not,” Levin said. “A vet… checks all your gliders for stool [samples] and bacterial infections and makes sure they’re healthy to breed.”
Levin currently owns 30 sugar gliders, all of which are breeding.
Each of her females has approximately four litters per year, each litter containing one or two “joeys.” She advertises them on websites like www.hoobly.com, which allows users to post free classified ads online.
Five or six people interested in buying sugar gliders contact her each week, she said.
“I kind of call it my adoption process,” Levin said.
For pet owners accustomed to dogs and cats, sugar gliders take some getting used to.
Although roughly the size and shape of hamsters, they are very mobile.
Elastic membranes that extend from their bodies allow the animals to glide from one spot to another.
In the wild, they can cover long distances between trees easily. In captivity, they enjoy jumping from one piece of furniture to the next, often scaling curtains to achieve a better vantage point.
Besides needing ample space to maneuver, sugar gliders also require a great deal of attention.
Because the animals are not completely domesticated, owners must spend as much time as possible with them when they are young to build trust. The fleece bonding pouch helps sugar gliders adjust to their owners’ smell and keeps them warm.
“The bonding is the hardest part, because you love them so much but you have to wait for them to warm up to you,” Foster said. “If my schedule permits, they sleep in their bonding pouch with me for a few hours a day.”
Smith, the breeder from Baltimore, has been breeding sugar gliders since the early 2000s and is applying for a USDA license.
The first imported sugar gliders were “beige grays,” said Smith, but breeders are starting to create new color combinations like cinnamon, albino and caramel.
Smith said it is important for buyers to consider the source of their sugar gliders.
“There’s a lot of people who are saying they are breeders but they’ll go and buy [gliders] from a fish store. You’ll know right off the bat [where it came from] by how tame a sugar glider is,” he said.
Besides determining the tameness of a sugar glider, potential buyers must consider several other factors. Unlike gerbils, whose average life expectancy is four to five years, sugar gliders can live eight to 12 years in captivity.
Although sugar gliders do not require regular veterinary care, finding an exotic vet can be difficult and the bills can be higher than those for common household animals.
A five-day intake program for a sick sugar glider at Stahl Exotic Animal Veterinary Services in Fairfax, Va., can cost at least $1,059 and a one-night emergency room stay at VCA Alexandria Animal Hospital can cost at least $407.
Levin, Foster and Smith also stressed the importance of daily interaction with the gliders.
David M. Brust, an exotic animal veterinarian and president of the Association of Sugar Glider Veterinarians, said the top drawback of owning a sugar glider is having to spend time with them every day.
“Even if they’re well bonded and well trained, if you put them in the cage and don’t mess with them [for a while], they’ll turn wild again,” Brust said.
Dr. Scott Medlin, a resident veterinarian at Stahl Exotic Animal Veterinary Services, said he recommends daily interaction.
“[It’s] the best way to get these guys to interact and be comfortable and be at their best health. As with all animals, you build a web of social interaction that keeps [them] mentally healthy,” he said.