In Australia, sugar gliders spread their limbs and travel from tree to tree in search of sweet nectar. At the home of Claire Ramos, they leap from her bed canopy, have pooped on her friends and have chewed up half her Kindle. But seeing this possum species take to the air like a flying squirrel makes their mischievous antics all worth it, says the 12-year-old.
“Before they take off, they look really small and skinny, but as they are about to jump, their bodies expand and make a rectangle,” she describes. “Then they float like a kite.”
Though dogs and cats remain the most popular pets in American households, families who explore the wild side of the pet kingdom experience their share of adventures.
Sweet and Sassy: Sugar Gliders
Because sugar gliders are nocturnal, they sleep while Ramos is at school. They wake up at 10 p.m., eager to feast on mealworms and play with her.
“I compare them to babies because they desire lots of attention,” she says. “They want to climb on you and need to be cleaned up and fed.”
At first, her parents were opposed to getting a sugar glider, but after her father saw a video of one displaying its acrobatic abilities, he changed his mind. They purchased their first sugar glider, Rocky, for $250 and purchased another, Brutus, six months later when they realized how sociable they are. Her mom still has not warmed up to the energetic pets.
“My mom is horrified of them,” Ramos says. “If I take them to her room and hold them up to her face, she starts to freak out.”
The family dog isn’t a fan of the tiny, big-eyed creatures, either.
“When our dog tries to sniff her, our sugar gliders make a shrill bark, get on their hind legs, hold up their claws and open their mouth as wide as they can,” Ramos explains. “Then my dog runs in the opposite direction.”
The fuzzy marsupials typically live up to 12 years, so they could be traveling with her to college.
“They’re really great companions, and they are very loyal,” she says. “They like to sit on my shoulder, and during road trips they make great pocket pets.”
Fowl Play: Happy Hens
Every day after school, 5-year-old Hank Anthony carefully collects the little brown eggs produced by his family’s four hens. He refreshes their water, and he and his 3-year-old brother, John, refill the chicken feed. Occasionally, they give their feathery friends kitchen scraps such as sandwich bread crust and strawberry tops.
They are one of the growing number of city children who are raising backyard chickens. In a typical week, their hens lay a total of 20 eggs, but the boys see them as pets, not livestock, says their mom, Rebecca Anthony. They even named them: Clara, Annette, Louise and Chacha.
“Our chickens have definite personalities,” she says. “You can’t cuddle with them, but my sons chase and hold them and like stroking their soft feathers. When the hens see me, they come running, hoping that I’m bringing food.”
Costing $3 each, the Plymouth Rock chicks were a birthday gift for their oldest son. Anthony’s husband used recycled metal to build their coop.
“We didn’t really want a dog, and so our compromise was to get chickens,” she says.
As chicks, they needed to be protected from predators by living inside and staying warm under a heat lamp, says Anthony, who learned chicken care basics from www.backyardchickens.com. Still, she was unprepared for the messy waste of the fluffy fowls.
“Chickens don’t pee, so unlike dog poop, you can’t pick it up because it has a lot of liquid,” she delicately explains. “If you have the space, it’s best to make a sizeable chicken run and coop in a part of your yard that doesn’t get used regularly.”
Can’t Touch This: Fire-bellied Toads
From an aquarium kept in her bedroom, 6-year-old Emersyn Landrum and her two siblings watch her fire-bellied toad hunt, catch and eat live crickets.
“My kids have a very good appreciation for animal life cycles and nature,” says her mom, Wendi Landrum. “If half of the cricket is hanging out of the toad’s mouth, that doesn’t seem to bother them.”
Though it is tempting to touch the amphibian’s gorgeous bright red belly, her children resist because of its toxic secretions. Also, they understand that oil from people’s skin can be harmful to the colorful skin of their bouncy buddy appropriately named “Jumpy.”
“They can’t pick it up and play with it, but my kids like to watch it swim and hop around,” Landrum says.
In the winter, Emersyn puts a blanket between the aquarium and the window to make sure her temperature-sensitive pet is insulated from the cold. She turns on the heat lamp, when necessary, and tells her mom when more crickets are needed.
Landrum buys the crickets two dozen at a time, but keeping up with the supply has been challenging.
“Since the crickets have to be alive, I have to constantly make trips to the pet store,” she says. “I put a few in the aquarium about every other day, depending if there’s a live one still hopping around.”
People say pets make life more interesting. With these animals gliding, clucking or jumping around, their families certainly agree.
Lisa Y. Taylor is a San Antonio freelance writer and mother of three daughters.