Spring 2004
Hand Raising a Sugar Glider

 

by

Peter Newman
Ungulate Keeper, Taronga Zoo

One evening, whilst checking on my private menageries, I heard a shrill screaming coming from my cockatoo aviary.    I shone my torch under the house of the aviary and found a badly injured Sugar Glider (Petaurus breviceps).    After bringing the animal inside and having a good look at it, it was obvious that it was very near death.    However the screaming persisted and on further examination we found that it was coming from the pouch.    With very gentle fingers, my wife inspected the pouch and found a very tiny baby, which we recovered from the teat.

We have hand-raised many orphaned animals over the years but had never heard anything so vocal for its size.   Although it seemed quite insane at the time with our house already full of orphaned kangaroos, possums and Emus (Dromaius novaehollandiae) as well as our permanent pets, we decided to attempt to rear this tiny creature.    Since it made so much noise, we hope it also had the heart and fight we knew it would need to survive.    The young glider was very small, her body and head were slightly less that two centimetres long and the whole animal, tail and all, sat in a teaspoon with room to spare.    Her body was totally transparent with a very light covering of grey fur on top of her head and shoulders.   Later, when feeding her, we could actually watch the milk going down and see quite clearly when her stomach was full.

The first priority was warmth, so we placed her in cotton wool, put that into a child’s sock and the sock into a small bag made of sheepskin.   A small box just large enough to hold a hot water bottle wrapped in a jumper formed our ‘humidicrib’.    We decided to call the youngster “Twiggy”; it seemed appropriate because of her size.    As all this excitement happened, as usual, late at night and the next problem was a feeding implement.    After much searching, we found a curved eyedropper and raided the kids’ bikes for an old style valve rubber which had helped us to save many small animals in the past.    Strict hygiene was also considered important so all utensils were sterilised in Halimid.

Having just successfully raised a Brush-tailed Possum (Trichosurus vulpecular) which had also been naked and blind, we decide don the same milk formula, halved in strength i.e. 42 parts of water to 7 parts of tinned full cream evapourated milk, two teaspoons full of egg yolk and a quarter of a teaspoon of honey.    This formula was fed to her at three hourly intervals and her hot water bottle refilled at every feed.    Her almost hairless body was kept constantly oiled.

Well, now we had a formula all we had to do was to get some into this screaming, minute Houdini of an animal and this proved to be the most difficult.     We found “Twiggy” to be tiny but agile and the get the eyedropper near her mouth was a major undertaking as she was too small to hold firmly.    My wife took over the early feeding as my hands and fingers were too large to cope with her.   The first attempt at feeding was a disaster, ending up with no milk inside but the whole of her body drenched.     However, the second time we fared a little better with a tiny puddle of milk visible through her transparent body; but still a half drowned “Twiggy”, which at 3am was not as funny as it now sounds.     We decided that we had little hope of raised her successfully but just carried on with each opening of her box expecting to find that she finally given up the battle.    However, each time she was still there yelling louder than ever and after a few days was sucking the valve rubber quite well.   Some four weeks after we found her she had developed a coat of grey fur everywhere but her belly and her eyes had opened.

The most unusual habit we noted, started shortly after her eyes had opened; she would feed quite well until three quarters of the way through her milk and then she would attack the ’teat’ screaming loudly and really fighting it.    We have experienced this before with cockatoo and Galah (Cacatua roseicapilla) chicks just before they finish a feed.    As this was our only attempt at raising a Sugar Glider, perhaps it is natural, though we have not heard of, or read of, anyone else experiencing this behaviour.

“Twiggy” was of course very tame when, after a couple of months she became too mobile, we transferred her and her sheepskin bags to a portable cat cage with small branches init.    She started to lap three months after we obtained her and her diet by then consisted of gum leaves and flowers, apple pear, sultanas and bread etc.    She really impressed visitors by running all over them and gliding from one person to another.  She remained quite tame for the six months we kept ht her and would come to the top of her cage when called.    We felt she was too tame to set free and so she went to the nocturnal house at Taronga Zoo, and is still there today (at the time the article was first published - Ed.).

 
Bennett's Wallaby
Juvenile NT Brushtail Possum
Swamp Wallaby
Golden Brushtail Possum
Red Kangaroos
Yellow-footed Rock-wallabies
Baby Squirrel Glider
Sugar Glider
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