Wild Things

The hottest pets are exotics, but be warned: Sugar gliders, hedgehogs and snakes don't always make ideal companions.

January 21, 2001|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

One look into those dark eyes, and 14-year-old Holly Reidt was hooked. This was no case of puppy love.

It was something else entirely. It was marsupial love.

On Christmas Eve, Holly opened her first gift, and it turned out to be her favorite. It was a sugar glider she named J-J Joey. Tears ran down her cheeks -- while her new pet, an Australian native resembling a flying squirrel, ran up her arm.

"No one I know has one," says J-J Joey's proud owner, an eighth grader who also keeps a hamster named Sophia and a 2-year-old yellow Lab named Yallie at her home in Freeland. "It was a big surprise."

Sugar gliders, a species virtually unknown in the United States five years ago, have become a hot item for teens. So have miniature hedgehogs. And chinchillas. And a host of unusual birds, snakes, turtles and lizards.

Move over, Rover, exotic animals are catching on as family pets.

"The American public loves variety," says Marshall Meyers, executive vice president of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Commission, a trade group for the pet industry based in Washington. "The public is far more aware of the availability of these animals than ever before. The Internet has been a major source of that information."

Baltimore-area pet-store owners say unusual species like sugar gliders have become the most difficult animals to keep in stock, and some of the priciest, too. A 6-inch-long sugar glider, which weighs about 6 ounces and can live 12 years or more, typically retails for $100 to $150. Some rare pets can cost thousands of dollars.

"It's an exciting new world," says Ruth Hanessian, owner of Animal Exchange, a Rockville pet store and president of the Maryland Association of Pet Industries. "There's definitely been an increase in a tremendous number of species."

The trend has drawn some protests from animal-rights groups, who are familiar with the inevitable fallout of any pet fad -- animals bought by youngsters eager to be cool are ultimately neglected or abandoned when interest wanes.

But while part of the appeal is to have something unusual -- to be the first in your middle school with a blue-tongued skink (a type of lizard, for you non-herpetologists) -- that's not the only selling point for exotic pets.

Some families seek convenience. Mom and Dad like the idea of a pet that spends most of its time in a cage and never needs

to be walked around the block. Some exotics are nocturnal, so they won't even know their owners are off at school -- they sleep during the day.

"Mothers don't have time to chase a dog or cat around the house," says Joe Cray, owner of Pet Peddlers in Catonsville. "Having a hedgehog is easier, and they interact with people better than gerbils or guinea pigs."

Julie French of Towson was just 14 years old when she acquired Ardy, her pet chinchilla, for $75. She was attracted to his incredibly soft gray fur and his powder-puff-on-legs appearance. After eight years together, the two are inseparable -- except when Julie, now a college senior, is at Vassar, and then her parents look after him.

"He's adorable," she says. "He just wants to run and play."

The two should have many more opportunities to do just that, since chinchillas may live 20 years or more. Even Julie's mother, Helen French, has become fond of the pet. Ardy's best trick is the back-flip into a pile of dust -- a maneuver he perfected while rolling around in his dust bath, a pan of powder-fine volcanic rock he uses to clean his coat.

"I didn't realize how long they last. I thought it would be like a hamster," she confesses. "But he's a good little creature."

No one keeps statistics on how many exotic pets are in circulation nationwide, but pet industry officials say they believe their numbers are growing. Pet ownership is up in general. An estimated 61 percent of U.S. households have one, according to a 1998 study by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

While dogs and cats are still the most popular pets (there are an estimated 67 million of them), their numbers are relatively stable. The fastest-growing species is reptiles. Since 1992, the percent of homes living with something scaly and cold-blooded has nearly tripled.

"Iguanas are huge. So are bearded dragons," says Meyers. "You can live in an apartment and keep one. That's why you see people who want a pet you can keep in an aquarium. It's just an easier way to do things."

The average iguana or snake may not seem all that cute or cuddly, but studies have shown pet owners are just as attached to their lizards as they are to their dogs. Dr. Alan M. Beck of Purdue University, a professor of veterinary medicine and leading pet researcher, says such relationships are particularly important for young men.

"That's how boys learn nurturing," says Beck. "Society doesn't allow them too many other opportunities to learn those skills."

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