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Cuddly marsupial glides into hearts

The tiny sugar glider likes sweet food and has a gliding membrane like a flying squirrel's - and needs a whole lot of TLC.

By TERRI D. REEVES

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2000


Many teens long for wheels for their 16th birthday, but Megan Luke wanted something that flies.

"She begged us for a year," said her mother, Sheila Luke. "She did a lot of research. We thought this through carefully."

Two weeks ago, Megan's dream came true. She became the proud owner of a strange looking creature called a sugar glider. She calls it Baby.

It seems these cuddly creatures with big black eyes, bat-like ears and chinchilla-soft coats are becoming the exotic pet to have and to hold. At 5 to 6 inches long, they are small enough to carry in a shirt pocket and unique, attracting plenty of attention. Many owners just don't leave home without them.

"I've taken her to school, youth group and the movies," said Megan, a Countryside High sophomore. "The only time it was bad was when I took her to the movie theater she started making loud noises and I had to run out of the movie."

Sugar gliders are tree-dwelling, nocturnal marsupials whose original habitats include Australia, Indonesia and New Guinea.

They are called sugar gliders because they love sweet foods and possess a gliding membrane similar to a flying squirrel which allows them to leap long distances. Females carry their young in a pouch.

Most are a silver color with a white abdomen and a black stripe down the back. They can live up to 15 years in captivity.

Megan said Baby never bites. And Megan doesn't mind that she isn't housebroken.

"Her droppings aren't messy at all," Megan said. "And when she wets, it's only a few drops."

Want to be the first on the block to own a sugar glider? They will cost anywhere from about $75 to $400. But there are some things about sugar glider care that you might want to know first.

Johnnie Sansone, a seventh-grader at Safety Harbor Middle School, became somewhat of an expert on sugar gliders when he acquired the three R's: Ruby, Rascal and Roxie.

The 13-year-old had to learn to prepare a low-fat diet that was 75 percent fruit and vegetables and 25 percent protein. He had to devote a couple of hours every evening to handling the gliders so they would remain tame. Cages had to be cleaned weekly, and their claws had to be clipped.

Johnnie learned about nutritional deficiencies when one of his sugar gliders died. He had to nurse another back to health by dropper feeding it powdered milk formula 20 times a day. When he found the two females injured in the cage (either by each other or by the male) there was a $400 vet bill to pay.

Breeder Kandace Whitehurst, 54, of Dunedin owns seven sugar gliders. She has bred and raised a couple dozen gliders over the past four years and almost gave it up because of abuse and neglect by pet owners.

"I've seen some horrible situations where people are raising them in aquariums or in tiny little bird cages."

When children and teens want the trendy pocket pets, Whitehurst said she tries to make sure the parents are interested and involved.

"I want them (gliders) to have a safety net," she said. "I find the adults fall in love with them when the kids fall out."

Jill Bender, 39, of Largo also breeds gliders as a hobby. Lately, though, she has rescued about a dozen.

"People think these creatures are just like hamsters that you can put in a little cage, feed pet store food and play with it now and then. You just can't do that," she said. "People who want to own them must be educated and committed."

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