RALEIGH — For Karen Merkatz, true love arrived one day in the form of a bug-eyed marsupial, no bigger than a mouse, peeking its striped head out of a shirt pocket.
From that day, sugar gliders coasted into her heart on fleshy membranes stretching from their fingers to the toes. She keeps eight of them now in her North Raleigh home, nestling them in fleece pouches, feeding them melons, chicken, cheese, eggs and Wombaroo high-protein supplement.
But here’s the message she would shout to anyone considering a tiny gliding pet:
They’re needy. They’re nocturnal. They’re noisy. They bite. They pee on you. Sometimes, they stink. In short, they’re a handful of tropical trouble – not for the casual, faint-of-heart owner.
One minute she says, “They’re so cute. They really know you. They’re like little dogs.”
The next: “They could scratch your eyes out.”
Natives of Australia and New Guinea, the sugar glider persists as popular exotic animal, sometimes marketed as the “sugar bear” or “pocket pet.”
You often see them sold in mall kiosks, or at the exotic animal show coming to the N.C. Fairgrounds this weekend – a cross between a possum, flying squirrel and a Chihuahua.
Craigslist.com last week offered a pair of them for $500 in Mebane, and another for $200 in Cary – travel cage and heat rock included. Cute they are. Cheap – not so much.
Neither are they easy, if Merkatz’ experience is any guide.
One of her gliders, Janalli, chewed all the fur off her own tail. Vets had to amputate it.
Another, Destiny, nearly died when a cage-mate blocked off all the food and water. To keep Destiny alive, Merkatz force-fed her through a syringe every two hours, around the clock, for a month.
Another glider, Lily, required a month of training before she quit biting and let people touch her.
“I was bitten really bad by that one,” said Merkatz, 55, pointing to a sleeping glider, “because I touched the one she attacked. I’ve been bitten hundreds and hundreds of time. More than I can count. But they carry no known diseases.”
Other domestic hazards loom for gliders, whose natural habitat is among the treetops.
“Most of them drown in the toilet,” Merkatz said, “because people don’t close the lid. I’m on fire to protect these animals. I could write a book.”
Before the glider-lovers out there launch a catapult load of hate mail my way, let me state that I’m a friend to the furry. Readers of this column may recall that I once rescued a baby squirrel, making it a bed out of a cardboard box and a sock.
But the kindest thing I did for that infant rodent was pass it on to a qualified rescuer. I practically drowned it with Pedialyte. I’m guessing that the average glider buyer isn’t well-versed on the lifestyle needs of wild, treetop-dwelling marsupial.
“They’re not a pet I’d recommend,” said Kindra Mammone, executive director of the nonprofit rescue CLAWS, Inc. “It takes four to eight hours a day to keep them friendly, and that’s with them on your body. Pick dwarf bunnies instead.”
On a scale of 1 to 10 – 10 being the hardest pets to manage – exotic animal vet Dr. Dan Johnson in Raleigh rates sugar gliders a 6 or a 7. But the marketplace is much improved.
You don’t see them online as much, or in pet stores, and what was once a cottage industry has grown into a more reputable business. Done right, they’re sold for a high price to discourage impulse buys, and at the right age for the animals to get socialized. There should be a round of follow-up emails after a sale, and a trouble-shooting hotline.
“If it’s legal to own a hamster, or a sugar glider, or a prairie dog, or a boa constrictor, and people are going to do it,” Johnson said, “let’s do it right.”
Don’t succumb to cuteness. Cuteness hides great danger. Consider the wolf cub, and the baby hippo, and the duck-billed platypus, which hides venom in its hind legs, waiting for an unsuspecting cuddler.
Jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818