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Look before you leap

Sugar gliders are cute but high-maintenance pets

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Taking care of a sugar glider isn’t the sweetest experience.
Photo: Jacob Kepler
Rick Lax

If you think puppies, kitties and bunnies are your cutest pet options, you’ve never met a sugar glider. These pocket-sized, saucer-eyed marsupials cuddle, scamper, sleep and leap. They’re complex, intelligent and affectionate. There’s just one catch: They’re harder to care for than a troop of kangaroos in heat.

Native to Australia, sugar gliders are illegal in California but legal in Nevada. That explains why so many of them end up at the Lucky Glider Rescue & Sanctuary in Henderson. Gail and Ed Margulies run it from their home.

“There’s a little odor in here,” Gail, 55, warned me as I walked through the front door. “It’s not going to knock you over; just smells like animals is all.”

Gail Margulies used to work in publishing, then as a dental assistant, and then she opened the sanctuary in 2006. Since then, business has been good—which is to say, she watches over a lot of sugar gliders that could use good homes.

Gail walked me through her living room and into the “Rescue Room,” which was packed with sugar glider cages. Floor-to-ceiling. Each cage contained a colony of gliders, a hamster wheel, a climbing rope and a wooden box filled with miniature blankets. The Margulieses had taped index cards to each of the cages to remind them of the occupants’ names: Krissey, Ponchito, Sabrina, Duke, Tank, Chip, Hexx, Jinx and Little Man, to name a few.

“All the suggies you see in these cages are available for adoption. We run ads on Craigslist and Google, but they usually just bring us more suggies. People bring us suggies for all sorts of reasons, but usually it’s because they’re just so tricky to care for.”

Gail told me that sugar gliders require a steady diet of fresh produce, animal protein and vitamins. When they’re not fed properly, they suffer. She pulled out a photo album, flipped to a particular page and showed me an unsettling photo of a criminally adorable glider with a horribly disfigured eye.

“This is Makudo. We had to have his eye enucleated—that means removed. Cost us $900. And the vet was concerned there could be an infection behind the eye, so after she lasered out the necrotic flesh, she put him on antibiotics, then water therapy, then eye drops.”

“Where’s Makudo now?” I asked.

“He was adopted. He lives in St. Louis.”

We put the album away, and Gail’s husband walked in through the back door. Ed, a 50-year-old telecom-industry worker, spends his free time writing, caring for gliders and doing battle with a man named Steve Larkin.

“Larkin is our nemesis,” Ed said. “He’s an operator, but he’s the grandfatherly type, so you don’t want to believe he’s a liar. But he is. He breezes into Vegas during the Cowboy Christmas Gift Show in December and gives you a slick pitch on how easy gliders are to take care of. He sells you a pair of gliders, a cage and a year’s worth of so-called glider food. And then he’s nowhere to be found—not until the next trade show, at least. I’m sorry, but you just don’t sell exotic animals at a home show. A sugar glider’s not a ShamWow.”

I asked him to elaborate on Larkin’s alleged misrepresentations. Ed had no trouble doing this: “He doesn’t tell you sugar gliders pee and poop constantly, that they bite, that they chew up furniture, burrow into your couch, bark at night. And some of things he says are patently untrue, like ‘Animal protein makes them stink.’ What makes suggies stink is not having them neutered.”

“How do you know he makes these misrepresentations?” I asked.

“Because half his gliders end up here! Suggies breed really fast. Their gestation period is just 16 days, and the females have two uteri. We need suggie breeders like Larkin like we need a hole in the head. We’ve got more than enough already. Did Gail even show you the ones in our room?”

“Not yet.”

Ed and I walked into the master bedroom, where Gail and Ed keep three colonies of sugar gliders as pets in cages no more than 10 feet from the bed. There’s a fourth colony in the master bathroom, which the Margulieses have converted into a full-time sugar glider playroom; Gail and Ed use the toilet in the guest bathroom down the hall.

We entered the playroom. Ed closed the door behind us and turned off the lights, explaining, “They’re nocturnal, so they’ll feel more comfortable coming out if it’s dark.”

He removed the wooden box from the massive cage, pulled out one of the gliders and handed it to me. Then he gave me a couple of sheets of Kleenex.

“What’s this for?” I asked, stupidly.

Then I looked down at my hand and saw what the Kleenex was for.

The glider scampered up my arm and onto my shoulder. Then it dashed across the back of my neck to my other shoulder.

“They’ll jump up on you and kiss your neck and comb through your hair,” Ed said. “They’re grooming you, like you’re one of their own.”

He took the glider off my shoulder and set it on the shower door. Then he walked to the opposite end of the bathroom and pointed to his shoulder. The glider leapt onto it.

Like flying squirrels, sugar gliders have skin membranes (patagia) that run from their fingers to their toes. When they leap, their bodies become flat rectangles. Seeing the leap, I couldn’t imagine any red-blooded American boy seeing a sugar glider leap and not petitioning his parents for a pair to call his own.

“I should talk to Steve,” I said.

“You can try,” Ed replied. “But he’s a tough guy to track down.”

Wasn’t that tough: I Googled Larkin’s name, called the first number that popped up and asked to speak to Steve.

“He’s not here,” the voice at the other end told me, “but let me give you his cell number.”

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I called that number and Larkin picked up.

“I’m in an RV right now,” the 61-year-old St. Louis native told me. “I’m driving from a show in Vegas to one in Reno. I’ve got about 30 baby glider pairs with me—they’re in USDA-approved travel cages, by the way. I’ve also got two adult pairs, in separate cages. This RV is no more than 300 square feet, and I tell you, Rick, there’s absolutely no odor.”

“Are the males neutered?” I asked.

“Nope. Neutering cuts down on the smell a little bit, but not as much as dry food does. I get mine from Purina, repackage it and resell it. But I don’t make that much off the food—just 40 dollars per year, per glider pair. The money isn’t a big factor for me. I just want what’s best for the gliders—and my experience is that the Purina food, with produce and vitamins, is best. Now, you can feed your gliders crickets, mealworms, cooked chicken—various types of animal protein—and they’ll be healthy, but they’re going to stink.”

None of the Margulies’ accusations surprised him.

“I just finished this show in Vegas. Apparently Gail and Ed had tracked down the promoter and talked at her for hours, just to wear her down. The promoter told me, ‘Steve, I love you, but please bring me something that I can use to arm myself against these Margulies people.’ And I will. I’ve been USDA-licensed for the last 14 years to raise and sell exotic animals in the United States. I’m subject to surprise inspections. I have a perfectly unblemished record, and I’ve got the documentation to prove it.”

I put legality aside and questioned Larkin about the morality of selling exotic pets at trade shows. He had a response to that concern, too:

“I like selling gliders at trade shows [home and garden shows, hunting and fishing shows, boat shows], because they allow me to look someone in the eye and judge if they’ll make a good owner. There have been times where I haven’t sold gliders to a family because I thought they couldn’t care for them properly. Maybe they had hyper kids, maybe they traveled too much. The two classes of people I most love to sell to—I’ll even give them a break on price—are elderly people and those confined to wheelchairs. I tell them, ‘Sugar gliders will stay in your pockets and give you unconditional love.’”

I asked Larkin whether he had anything he’d like to say to the Margulieses. Here’s what he said: “I think they’re doing a noble thing by rescuing sugar gliders. If somebody in Las Vegas can’t afford to get gliders from me, I’d recommend them to Gail and Ed. And I have; I’ve sent customers to them in the past.”

If you’re interested in adopting a pair of gliders from the Lucky Glider Rescue & Sanctuary—you should get at least two; they get lonely by themselves—Gail and Ed Margulies can be reached by e-mail (Rescue@LuckyGlider.org) or by phone (228-8556). But before you leap into sugar glider ownership, know that you might end up with more than you bargained for. Ed and Gail sure did; when they got their first gliders, they never imagined their home would one day be devoted to the miniature marsupials. They got their first gliders at a trade show. From Steve Larkin, actually.

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