Anissa-Marie Harris and her boyfriend, Curtis Matthews, have many nicknames for their sugar gliders: sugars, the kids, the suggies, the babies, those demons.
Indeed, sugar gliders aren't for everyone. The animals, marsupials native to Australia, Indonesia and New Guinea, get their name from tree gum they eat in the wild and their ability to soar like flying squirrels. Although they're not rodents, sugar gliders are about the size of a mouse. But don't let their size, velvety fur and resemblance to Gizmo the Gremlin fool you. These little guys are a handful.
"Caring for them is like caring for small children," says Harris, 24, of Tampa. She and Matthews own two sugars, 7-month-old female Imp and 4-year-old male Skippy. Each evening the couple spend up to 30 minutes prepping meals, including fresh produce, yogurt, cooked eggs and supplementary pellets, for their finicky eaters. Then they try to sleep as the nocturnal critters run in their wheel and make a chittering noise, Harris says, "from about 10 p.m. until about the time you wake up for work."
Sill, she and Matthews love their sugar gliders and would consider adopting more when theirs get older. They sometimes treat the pets to a bit of honey, ZooKeeper's Secret sugar-glider food or a toy from SunCoast Sugar Gliders in St. Pete.
Breeder Lisa Bordelon, co-owner of SunCoast Sugar Gliders, sells the animals, their food and accessories at sugar-gliders.com. Her gliders range from $150 to $800. Some can cost up to $10,000, depending on coloration.
We stopped by Bordelon's house, where she's raising seven sugars of her own, to get the scoop on these trendy pets. Heed Bordelon's advice and consider these five questions before buying a sugar baby.
1. Whose pet is it anyway? Just as you wouldn't expect a kid to be the primary caretaker for a puppy, think twice about getting a sugar glider for your child. Sugars require a rotational diet of fresh produce, pellets and protein, plus a vitamin and calcium supplement. They don't need vaccines but should see a vet annually. They also make noise at night and occasionally knock things over.
2. Can I handle two? Gliders are socially needy and do best in pairs. In fact, Bordelon won't sell them solo.
3. Am I ready for the commitment? Sugar gliders live an average of 10 to 14 years in captivity. Expect to spend the first month bonding, as gliders should be handled often to make them human-friendly. "They're kind of like a cat in that, 'I own you, you don't own me.' But they have more of a dog's heart," Bordelon says.
4. Who will be on clean-up patrol? Sugar gliders are used to doing their business in treetops, where gravity takes care of the mess. They cannot be litter box trained, so try to get them to go on a paper towel when they first wake up. Also watch for what Bordelon calls the "potty dance," a sign that they need to go No. 1, and prepare to pick up their droppings around the house.
5. How will my other pets cope? Bordelon's black Lab and Belgian sheepdog all but ignore her sugar gliders, but hunting dogs and cats may mistake them for prey. Gliders fear snakes and birds, their natural predators.