Off the Leash

In the exotic pet universe, it's all about whose is weirder than whose.

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Daddy Glider: Art Gibbons and his sugary companions.
photo: Courtesy of Art Gibbons
Though obviously a canine, the fox deviates from typical behavior in that he loves climbing — which has had a detrimental effect on Jimenez's chaotic apartment. "And his tail wags up and down, not side-to-side."

Jimenez had to go through the same licensing procedure the Burks did to get Sasha. A guy who bottle-feeds babies at All My Critters and clearly loves the animals he cares for, Jimenez is the kind of person Reynolds wants owning an animal that is probably best left in the wild.

"An Arctic fox?" he says. "Really? That's kind of neat. People want really strange things like that, and you know what? I don't care."

He'd like to place the largest animals in a more restrictive class, so only exhibitors, not pet lovers, can keep them.

"Lions, tigers, and bears," he explains, "stuff that will definitely eat you — I don't want these things running around the Everglades!"

Yagui wouldn't last long in the River of Grass. Even though he doesn't have his full coat, he's designed, right down to his fur-covered toe pads, to live in snow.

But invasive, non-native species that started off as pets are running rampant through the Everglades. Burmese pythons, for example. Starting off as small pets, Burmese pythons can grow up to 15 feet in length. They're fat snakes — bigger around than a phone pole — and they find plenty to catch, constrict, and eat in the Everglades.

No permit is required to own a non-venomous snake in Florida, only the cash to purchase it.

"The pet shop just wants to make a buck," Reynolds says. "They're not going to sit there and educate you."

Pet store owners like Pata disagree.

"If we have uneducated people, we have to curb their interest," he says. "We have a right not to sell to someone who's too lazy to read. Whenever we have a person who doesn't want to invest anything in themselves, let alone an animal, I just think, 'WalMart can have this customer.'"


One afternoon while Art Gibbons was shopping at Circuit City, employees started eyeing him suspiciously. Something was inside his shirt. Was he shoplifting? Finally a manager approached him. Gibbons revealed his secret — inside his T-shirt was a pouch, and in that slept one of his pet sugargliders. A small marsupial that can soar like a flying squirrel, the gliders are increasingly common as house pets.

"Oh, cool," said the Circuit City employee. "We thought you had a colostomy bag."

Gibbons and his wife Paulette have been breeding and raising sugargliders since 2000. That's when the bottom fell out of the chameleon market. With decline of the public's interest in chameleons, the Gibbonses took a big hit.

"I always liked flying squirrels," Art Gibbons says. When a friend told him about sugargliders, he ended up buying one from a guy who kept his in a 10-gallon aquarium. "Way wrong for these guys," Gibbons chides. His gliders live in large birdcages, and he's even built a "glider-proof" room in his house in Port St Lucie.

"If you're an animal lover, there's a big draw to it," Art explains. A nearly off-the-chart cute index renders them irresistible to the susceptible.

"Except, when you take 'em out of your pocket to show somebody, they have a tendency to pee and poo on you." But that first impression isn't so bad, he insists. "It's not like a dog taking a dump on you. It's a teeny little turd."

Sugargliders have babies the marsupial way: infants are about as big as a grain of rice and must climb into the mother's pouch, find a nipple in the darkness, latch on, or die.

As the babies grow, they become extremely attached to each other and any humans in the vicinity.

"If you have one, it's going to be your shadow. It's going to live on you, especially during the daytime. They own you, you don't own them."

Gibbons is never without a sugarglider in a pouch. "It doesn't matter," he says, "I've always got one on me." Grocery store. Doctor's office. Library. Even restaurants. Gibbons believes his animals accept him as a member of their colony. "When you're bonded to them," he says, "it's like you're a big giant glider."

Caring for one of his pets requires round-the-clock vigilance. "Think of them as being like a two-year-old kid, only on a teeny scale," Gibbons says. "You can't leave them unattended. They can chew through a wire, or fall in the toilet. And they can't swim."

To the extent he's able, Gibbons screens buyers (a sugarglider currently sells for $175). "But some people couldn't take care of a pet rock. They can't take care of themselves."


Reynolds does worry about the influx of trend-based pets in South Florida, particularly when they're so easy to obtain. "But we're making it tough for people to dummy up and get a permit" for some of the most unusual critters. Even so, he isn't against educated folks owning whatever they want, and bristles at too much government interference. "A political issue is what it is. I believe in total freedom."

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