Sugar gliders are a rising exotic pet option

Christine Renner, of the Winchester Aquarium and Pet Center, holds her pet sugar glider, Clementine. Kevin Green/Daily

From Winchester native Christine Renner’s standpoint, sugar gliders are becoming a popular option in the pet world.

Renner is part of the versatile sales staff at the Winchester Aquarium and Pet Center and, by all accounts, is the shop’s expert on sugar gliders.

Jeff Nethers, owner of the pet center, said they sell around two dozen gliders every year.

Renner said she has seen the demand and interest for exotic pets — especially sugar gliders — increase in the last couple of years.

“People, I guess, are kind of getting bored with your normal small animals. A lot of people don’t want the responsibility of a dog or a cat that don’t live in a cage,” Renner said.

Sugar gliders are small nocturnal marsupials that are in same genetic family as kangaroos. According to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, gliders have a lifespan of 10-15 years and are native to portions of Australia, Indonesia and parts of New Guinea.

For businesses like the Winchester Aquarium and Pet Store to sell exotic options like sugar gliders, the United States Department of Agriculture requires a license.

Virginia is one of 10 states in the country that has a partial ban on the private ownership of certain exotic animals, including barred tiger salamanders and piranhas.

However, the sale of sugar gliders is legal in Virginia, as it is with most areas nationwide.

Prior to joining the sales team, for about a year and a half Renner noted that she independently took care of and found new homes for sugar gliders that previous owners had surrendered.

She explained that she would “rescue” the gliders and take them home to her apartment to socialize them until she could find new homes by working with the store.

She noted that she tried to get the gliders to a calm state by socializing with them as much as possible, without actually bonding to them.

“They weren’t staying with me,” she said, “I was purely just kind of making them realize that all humans aren’t going to ignore them.”

She said this approach was effective in helping the gliders find a new home. Eventually, this partnership with the store turned into a job for Renner.

According to Renner, taking care of a glider is not like taking care of a dog. Sugar gliders, she said, can learn routines, but cannot learn commands.

Nethers noted, “They’re a social bonding creature, so they really want to be part of the family.” He added that this process is mandatory and can take “anywhere from several days to several months.”

The initial bonding between a glider and its owner is unique since gliders are scent bonders that imprint themselves on to a new owner by way of smell.

“You can actually take a shirt you wear or a pillow case … and you put in [the cage] and you let them sleep with it,” Renner explained, adding that it allows the glider to get more comfortable with its owner.

Once the glider and owner have become bonded, the owner can take the glider out of its cage and carry it in a bonding pouch, Nethers said.

On the whole, Renner said that gliders are relatively affordable to take care of, especially considering a diet that consists of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as yogurt.

While caring for gliders is not expensive, Nethers said that the initial set-up can cost several hundred dollars, with everything from the glider to a cage.

Nethers said this limits the number of people who can adopt a glider. “They wouldn’t be an animal that you would just take, stick in a cage and treat like a hamster.”

He added, “Parents usually say they are buying them for their kids, but in effect, they are buying them for themselves as well.”

Renner said that she does not rescue gliders anymore, but she does own three gliders — including a 1 1/2-year-old female named Clementine, who spends time in the store with her.

Renner noted that the store has eight gliders available and stressed that they are a pretty popular option at the moment.

“We definitely notice [the demand] more whenever we don’t have them in,” Renner said, adding that the store puts together lists of people who have requested sugar gliders.

“They’re unique,” she said. “They’re really very cool little odd creatures.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com