Although most children enjoy keeping pets, some may overlook the cruelty being inflicted when animals are kept that, although particularly cute, are also particularly unsuited to living out of their natural habitat. This primary assembly explores this danger with the children

The growing popularity of sugar gliders (small furry animals that can glide from tree to tree) as pets is raising concerns with animal welfare organisations. The broader moral issue is whether ‘cuteness’, or passing fashion, are valid reasons for keeping a creature as a pet, away from its natural environment.

Resources

Pictures of sugar gliders. There are lots on Google images.

Try to use the YouTube clip of an expert explaining, in graphic detail, why it’s not a good idea to keep a sugar glider.

If the link doesn’t work search YouTube for ‘Drawbacks of Sugar Gliders’.

Introduction for teachers

Sugar gliders are small marsupials about 15cm long. A membrane that they can stretch out between their front and back limbs enables them to launch themselves into a glide of up to 60 metres. They’re natives of Australia and New Guinea, where they prefer a hot and humid environment, living on live insects and the sweet sap from certain trees (hence “sugar”).

They’ve become fashionable pets in the USA, and there are signs that the craze is spreading to the UK. The attraction is that they’re small, unusual and disarmingly attractive. One website says, ‘…having one in your pocket is a sure-fire way to meet people and make new friends’.

The issue for children, clearly, is whether people should be keeping pets of any kind for that sort of reason.

Introduction for children

Do you have any pets? Do you want to tell us about them? Discuss for a few minutes.

Lots of people have cats and dogs. They make excellent pets don’t they? Both animals, cats and dogs, have lived with human beings for thousands of years. They’re well adapted to being in and around our homes.

Are there any animals that you think shouldn’t be kept as pets? [Discuss this for a while.] There are lots, aren’t there? In fact there are far more that you shouldn’t keep than ones that you could. Many animals need to be in the wild – in the right climate, with the right amount of space and the food that they naturally find. If you put one of these animals in a cage or a box or a basket, even if you’re kind to it, and cuddle it, and talk to it, you’re actually being cruel to it, because it would much rather be in its own home living its own life than living in yours.

One animal that a lot of people are starting to want to keep in America and over here is the sugar glider. They are called that firstly because they like sugary sap from trees, and secondly because they can glide from one tree to another, by jumping and spreading out flaps of skin between their legs to keep them going. People think they’re cute, which they are, but they’re also wild animals that hunt at night and sleep in the day and it’s cruel to keep them.

To show why they might not like it, here are two sugar gliders talking about their lives. We’ll call one of them Jammy Dodger. He lives in the wild, in the forests of New Guinea. And we’ll call the other one Sweet Sue. She lives in a basket in a house on the edge of London.

Jammy’s story
[The voice is confident and streetwise] Hi, I’m Jammy Dodger, and I’m a really cool sugar glider. I live high up in the trees in the forest here, just north of Australia. It’s pretty dangerous round here – there are cats and dingos hanging about on the ground and I have to keep away from them. But if the cats come up the trees after me, I just take off and wheeeeee, I can fly like a bird. Except that no, I can’t really. What I can do is stretch out my legs and the loose skin comes out like wings and I sort of glide down and along till I get to the next tree and I’m safe. And on the way down I gather up some insects in my outstretched skinny wings, so they’re all ready to eat.

There’s a whole gang of us here – six of us altogether. We look after each other and bring up the young ones. We hunt at night and sleep in the day in some holes in the trees and we’re very happy. Every night is an adventure. I wake up, have a wee – I don’t look where because it really doesn’t matter up here in the trees – and eat some insects. I don’t have to worry about the scraps and bits because they fall to the ground and other insects eat them up. And I do like being one of our little crowd. I know how to look after myself, and I’m fine.

Sue’s Story
[The voice is languid and world-weary] You may think I’m fine here in this house, but to be quite frank, darlings, I’m really, really miserable. Let me tell you I have to sleep in a basket of all things, which I don’t like, because it’s nothing like the hollow tree I should be sleeping in. And then the human child who looks after me thinks I’m really cute and she gets me out of the basket when I’m asleep in the daytime to show people. I ask you. And usually, do you know what? When I wake up I really do have to go to the toilet. We all do that you know, and in the forest it doesn’t matter. But here, oh the fuss they make! If I wee on one these humans she goes mad! And the child calls me a naughty girl! Me! I once got so annoyed I bit her. She screamed and ran off. Can you imagine? Me. Cute? In your dreams, darling. Mess with me and and I’ll show you.

I’m lonely, too. I’m the only sugar glider in this house. There are lots of humans. They like being together, but they don’t seem to worry about me being on my own. And, let me tell you, I get the wrong food. I haven’t seen a real live flying beetle for weeks. And the air’s too dry in the house. It’s not doing my lungs any good.

But what really worries me is there’s an even bigger problem approaching. The dreadful child who looks after me is off to college soon, and they don’t know what to do with me. I know the child’s mother won’t want to keep me. She hates me. She’s one of the people I’ve wee’d on. And she doesn’t like the bits and mess I leave when I’ve had my food. Calls me a dirty beggar. I can’t help but wonder what’s to become of me.

Conclusion

Please don’t get a pet just because they look cute, or because someone else has one, or because you’ve seen one in a cartoon. Get a pet that likes human beings, and enjoys human company. Go to a dog rescue centre and you’ll see dogs that are looking out for people, just longing to live with a family. You won’t see sugar gliders longing to come home with you. Please think about your responsibility as a human being to the creatures that share our planet with us.

A prayer

We thank you, Lord, for the creatures that share our planet with us. We thank you especially for the ones that share our lives and enjoy our company. Help us to be always thoughtful in caring for them, and may we have the sense and the courage not to think that we can make wild and free animals into domestic pets.

A thought

There are animals to keep, animals to look at, animals to study and animals to leave in peace. Let’s always try to know which ones are which.

Further information

The internet is crammed with information on how to look after sugar gliders. Some of them even try to convince the reader that keeping them is a good idea. One of these is Ruth’s Sugar Glider Page. Discuss it with children.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in September 2008

About the author: Gerald Haigh

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