Marsupial vendors at Sailfest tout animals' attributes, but PETA disagrees

A sales person with Pocket Pets shows a sugar glider to people on the final day of Sailfest in New London, Sunday, July 12, 2015. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
A sales person with Pocket Pets shows a sugar glider to people on the final day of Sailfest in New London, Sunday, July 12, 2015. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

New London — Amid the Sailfest vendors hawking jewelry, Ecuadoran imports, handmade soaps and all manner of edibles, one booth offered perhaps the most exotic item to be found at the fair: small marsupials native to Australia, New Guinea and Indonesia known as sugar gliders or sugar bears.

The three salesmen manning the PocketPets booth talked tirelessly to the steady streams of fairgoers Saturday and Sunday about the attributes of these big-eyed, nocturnal tree dwellers as pets.

People were invited to stroke their soft, gray fur, watch them leap into the large thigh pockets of the handlers, and hold a sunflower seed to their mouths with their opposable thumb and claw.

“They readily bond to humans,” one of the handlers told a group gathered at the booth Sunday afternoon, adding that the Florida-based company is “the largest breeder in the U.S.”

Brochures handed out at the booth directed people to the company’s website, www.SugarBears.com, where one can arrange to purchase one of the chipmunk-sized animals online for about $670, including the cost of the sugar glider, cage, food, bonding pouch, educational materials and delivery.

The buyer arranges to pick up the animals at an airport in “the closest major city that accepts animals.”

In one section, the website describes the company as a U.S. Department of Agriculture-licensed facility that is a “very small private breeder.” In another section, however, it states that it “works with several small breeders.”

At the booth, when asked for more information for a news article, the salesmen’s friendly demeanor turned defensive. They also objected to anyone photographing them or the animals, even though they were on display at a public event, and took steps to shield the animals from camera lenses.

“We have no interest in posting articles in the newspaper,” one of them said.

Asked why a business would shun free publicity, the salesman said the company did not want to attract the attention of “PETA people,” and added that company has been in existence for 25 years and has a legal team ready to act on its behalf.

Messages left on a phone number and email address on the company’s website requesting comment for this article were not returned.

According to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, sugar gliders can legally be sold in pet stores in Connecticut.

Major pet stores, however, including PetSmart in New London and Petco in Waterford, do not sell the marsupials because of their highly specialized needs.

Neither DEEP nor the state Department of Agriculture, which regulates pet sales, had any further information about PocketPets or SugarBears.com. on Sunday.

The nonprofit animal rights organization PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — is, however, very familiar with PocketPets.

Because of its efforts, several companies that own and manage shopping malls have banned the company from selling sugar gliders at mall kiosks. On Jan. 8, CBL & Associates was the most recent mall management company to ban PocketPets.

“They are now prohibited at over 1,200 properties,” said Gemma Vaughan, animal cruelty case worker for PETA. As a result, she said, the company has turned to selling sugar gliders through the fair circuit, but PETA is hoping to stop that, too.

“We will be reaching out to the fair organizers (of SailFest),” she said.

She said PocketPets animals come from “hellish breeding facilities” and sell the pets by appealing to “impulsive buyers and moving from one location to another.”

The animals are also stressed in the shipping process, and can carry diseases such as salmonella and ringworm that can infect humans and domestic pets, Vaughan said. She also noted that California, Hawaii, Alaska, St. Paul, Minn., and Fairfax County, Md., have all banned the sale of sugar gliders as pets.

Despite the company’s claims, she said, sugar gliders do not make good pets because they are by nature nocturnal, require a highly specialized diet that cannot be replicated in the pellet food sold by PocketPets, and are “high maintenance.”

In addition, she said, they are highly social animals used to living in groups as large as 30, so single animals are highly stressed and lonely and tend to self-mutilate.

“Once the novelty wears off, they often get bounced from home to home, or abandoned and let loose,” she said.

j.benson@theday.com

Twitter: @BensonJudy

In this August 17, 2012 file photo, a Sugar Glider looks up while another steals its food at the Night Safari exhibit, at the Singapore Zoo in Singapore. (Wong Maye-E/AP Photo)
In this August 17, 2012 file photo, a Sugar Glider looks up while another steals its food at the Night Safari exhibit, at the Singapore Zoo in Singapore. (Wong Maye-E/AP Photo)

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