Thrive Versus Survive
I hear continually from people who are confused and bewildered by the massive information overload one can experience when researching gliders on the internet. Everyone seems to have an idea on diet, cage size, environment, colony size, etc.
But as I look at all of the different opinions and viewpoints, it seems most of these opinions fall into two major categories. There is the concept of survive – keep the animal alive, really a human-centric approach of minimal effort. Then there is the concept of thrive – a more enlightened, animal-centric approach, where the goal is to not just keep the animal alive, but happy to be so.
Survive is the old school group. The survive concept makes things “simple” and probably won’t kill your sugar glider, but deep down I do not believe these concepts will keep your glider alive for the longest possible life span either. These people advocate treating your sugar glider like a hamster. In other words, small cage is OK (bigger is good, but small is OK). Feeding only a pellet food, and maybe some apple now and then is fine. Keeping just one sugar glider is OK. We are the superior human race and keeping animals as pets is our right!
The thrive group instead sees pet keeping not as a right that we possess, but rather a privilege that we are granted. It’s a more modern day approach in a time where animal welfare has an elevated status over years past. Behavioral or Environmental “Enrichment” is a concept central to the idea of thrive.
Both sides staunchly hold that their way is the best way and both sides are continually pointing out the reasons why the other guys are “wrong”. Hey, let’s just call it what it is – differing points of view. I certainly feel strongly about my point of view on this matter, but the fact is, old school has been around a long time and it takes time for enlightenment to reach global proportions. Polarized points of view seem to be a sign of the times right now, and we really should follow our conscience in all things we do.
There is a series of sugar glider care material on YouTube right now featuring Dr. Brust. I think this is a great example of the survive school of thought – the “minimum required” approach. The new school thrive approach (be it in pet maintenance or total human lifestyle choices) dictates a more enlightened experience similar to what is practiced in the best managed care facilities. It strives to emulate the free range experience best we can in captivity.
I remember when I was little girl growing up in New Orleans, a trip to the zoo was not then what it is now. The animals were all kept in cages with bars in the front and the enclosures looked identical. Most of the animals just stood there or lay in a corner. Then one day, the zoo changed and the environment for each animal was customized to better create a more natural experience by species. The animals were bright-eyed and active in the habitat. The old New Orleans zoo is an example of survive; the updated zoo is an example of thrive.
Here are some of the major differences in the thrive versus survive viewpoints. In diet, thrive encourages the feeding a variety of fresh foods with variance in the daily menu and a high quality, nutritionally balanced pellet food fed free choice. High quality foods these days (for many species) emphasize good wholesome ingredients, human grade ingredients with an absence of soy, glutens, and other cheap fillers. If the shelf life of the food exceeds six months, you are using a food with chemical preservatives as opposed to natural preservatives as natural preservatives do not guarantee freshness past six months. The survive group will tell you that a pellet and a piece of fruit piece or white bread now and then is fine.
Even within the thrive camp we can break this down into two camps – one that supports a professionally made staple food like Wholesome Balance versus a homemade staple food, like BML. In case it’s not clear, exotic diets typically consist of 2 elements – the staple food, which provides a consistent level of known nutritional value, and the enrichment items. If you are only feeding a staple food, then you are in the survive camp of sugar glider husbandry.
Speaking of homemade staple foods, I talk to a lot of people who use some form of homemade staple food and most of these people make their own version of it, which is really a dangerous thing to do. I understand why people do these things, usually it’s to encourage the gliders to eat more of it when they get bored with the food. But once you do that, you are now in the business of diet creation, which is fine – if you have the education and background to do this.
A better approach to food boredom would be a to serve a variety of foods – the thrive approach. Problem is, this can be complicated unless you provide a staple food of known, consistent nutritional value. See this weekly diet for an example of a thrive approach.
The survive school will often suggest not to feed bugs (again the point is to make things easy, like a hamster). The thrive school strives to create the most natural experience and as gliders are preferential insectivores, does it make sense to deprive them of their preferred food? And please don’t buy the hype that bugs will make your glider stink. I don’t know where this rumor started, but it is not based in fact, even if a Dr did say it’s true. I feed mine bugs all the time! Intact male gliders smell, regardless of diet. Females and neutered male gliders do not generally have strong smells.
The survive school will tell you that cages only need to be about 18 inches wide and 20 inches tall. The thrive school will tell you that a minimum cage size should be at least three feet tall and almost that wide; bigger is always better, even for babies. Your ability to bond with a sugar glider is not affected by having a large cage.
The survive school will tell you that sugar gliders will do just fine as solo pets. Friends are good for them, but alone is OK too. The thrive camp will tell you this sugar gliders should always have buddies of their own kind. They are extremely social animals and not mentally equipped to live without other sugar gliders. To dismiss this fact is human-centric thinking and denies the true nature of the animal.
In summary, it’s time to stop calling either approach wrong or right. It’s simply a choice – are you going to stick with the old school, domesticated pet approach where your pet just survives, or are you going to go with the new school enrichment approach, and take responsibility for enabling your sugar glider to thrive?
The Sugar Glider Listener
OK, I admit it! Sugar gliders are not the only animals that I love and feel passionate about. I’m also a big time dog lover and with two pups under a year old right now, I’ve been brushing up on my dog training techniques by reading and attending classes.
I just finished a book this week called the Dog Listener and without going into all the details, there were a couple of things that struck me as it applies to sugar gliders. The premise of this book is to help one gain knowledge on how dogs communicate within a pack. Like dogs, sugar gliders are communal animals and there is a language that I hope in time we learn more and more about. The more we understand how animals communicate amongst themselves, the better equipped we are to create a perfect environment for them.
Before I get into what some of the interpretations of glider language means, there were a couple of points made in this book that I want to share, as it applies to all animals.
First, sugar gliders are not for birthdays (or any other special event). They are forever!
Second, there are no such things as bad sugar gliders, there are just sugar gliders who exhibit bad behavior. There is no such thing as mean sugar gliders. There are just sugar gliders who may be acting out of fear, territoriality or protectionism. It is very challenging for most people to see through an animal’s eyes. It is our tendency to apply human feeling and attributes to our animal friends. For example, a statement like “my sugar glider is mad at me because I was gone all weekend”. True or False?
If you said False, you are right. Animals do not get mad in the sense that we think of mad, or glad, or sad. Animals are driven on a more primal level and are concerned with survival issues (and you already know I think us humans need to take that up a notch to thrive, not just survive). Such issues would be, where is my next meal coming from? Where do I feel safe and secure with my colony mates, and speaking of mates, when do we mate and keep the species going?
Other concerns of animals that live in groups are keeping the hierarchy in order. Someone has to be the chief and everyone else the Indians. And even amongst the Indians, there is an order that many refer to as pecking order. In humanity, we are always stressing equality and that is a noble goal for a human society. In the animal kingdom, equality doesn’t always work. Species survive and thrive when the strongest and fittest are in charge.
A good starting point in learning more about the species we know and love as sugar gliders is learning what it is that they are saying. We all know about the crabbing sound. It’s often one of the first sounds we hear when meeting sugar gliders for the first time. Most of us agree that this sound indicates agitation. In other words “back off, yer freakin me out”. This sound is usually heard as the direct result of fear or intimidation in the case of a very territorial glider or a glider concerned with protecting its young.
The next sound is the bark. This is my favorite. It sounds like a high pitched puppy yip. A lot of people see this as a call, like “hey come here and play with me”. I agree that is part of the meaning, but I also see it as a warning. When you are in the company of many sugar gliders and one starts barking, the others tend to freeze in space. So another interpretation of this in my book of glider language is “be still, possible predator in the area”. Sometimes the same sound can have two meanings, right? Like a human scream – there’s the “someone scares the snot out of you” scream, and the “found the winning lottery ticket in your wallet” scream.
Next sound is a sound that may be described as a sneeze. This sound often results when a sugar glider is cleaning itself. Pzzzt, pzzzt. Have you heard this one? Right as they are waking up? You will see the sleeping pouch start to move around in a bit of a lumpy way with strange sounds coming from within. This one means “get your toe outta my eye” … “hey, she pulled my ear” … “may I have my tail back please” …. “who tooted?” I think of this sound as similar to the bickering of children. They are all waking up and wiggling around and frankly, annoying each other a little bit during the process.
The hiss is another that can have at least dual meanings. When a sugar glider just hisses, to be honest, I’m not sure what it means. It doesn’t seem to be attached to agitation or annoyance, but not apparently a content or happy noise either. However, if a glider is hissing while going (or attempting to go) to the bathroom, pay attention. This is a sound of discomfort and a good signal that a vet visit should be in your immediate future.
Last, I’ll wrap up with the sounds of little clicks and purrs …. This is a good sign that your friend is content and feeling peaceful; thriving!
The above certainly does not cover all sounds a glider can make, but hopefully will give you a good beginning point to start your own listening and interpretation of what your articulate acrobats are saying to you and to each other.
‘Til next time, in good health for you and your gliders, we sign off in appreciation of all of you who share great glider adventures with us!