You can keep a sugar glider as a pet in several parts of the world – you can even get one here if you know where to look. But if we turn Australian mammals into pets on a large scale, will it help or hinder their survival in the wild?
Mike Archer has opened his home to possums, flying foxes, quolls and wallabies. But although he’s a renowned biologist, he’s no wildlife carer. The native Australian animals have been his pets.
“I’ve had so many wonderful native animals that have shared my house and my backyard,” Archer tells me. “I think we’re nuts for just feeling we have to stick with the introduced alien species as pets.”
The adoption of native Australian mammals as pets is a divisive topic. My introduction came with sugar gliders. When a friend said they were thinking of getting pet sugar gliders I was quietly horrified. It’s not illegal – you can keep sugar gliders in Victoria, the Northern Territory and South Australia if you have a licence – but it didn’t sit right with me. They should remain in their natural habitat, I thought. They’re wild animals after all.
But as Archer points out, many native animals are not doing too well in their diminishing natural habitat.
Our mammals live in a world of fractured national parks and narrow corridors between human cities, towns and farmland, where they’re vulnerable to hungry cats and foxes.
“We’re squeezing these animals into ever tinier corners,” he warns. “Wildlife is increasingly not safe in the wild.”
And it’s true. In Australia, where a most of our mammals are endemic (found nowhere else), we’ve managed to eliminate over 30 species since the arrival of Europeans – the highest mammalian extinction rate in the world. Many more species are endangered.
“We need every strategy we can find to give these animals a chance to survive into the future,” Archer says. “Keeping native animals as pets is going to mean having breeding facilities, it’ll mean a population of them as a safety net that won’t go extinct, and it will enhance people’s interest in them.”
Our mammals live in a world of fractured national parks and narrow corridors between human cities, towns and farmland, where they’re vulnerable to hungry cats and foxes. The smaller the population, the less resilient it is after bushfires, droughts, or flooding.
A research paper published in 2019 found that the Australian government spends $122 million a year on threatened species recovery. That’s about a tenth of what the US spends, and according to the researchers, it’s around 15% of the amount that’s actually needed to recover Australia’s threatened species.
Archer has been keeping native mammals since the 1970s. In 2015 he recruited Senator David Leyonhjelm to the cause, with Leyonhjelm suggesting to the Senate that “the quoll may replace domestic cats”.
This may sound crazy, but it’s a decent point – there are 3.8 million pet cats and another few million feral cats in Australia, and each one kills between 200 and 800 native animals a year. But many don’t agree.
“WIRES strongly believes that [keeping native pets as animals] will not lead to better conservation outcomes,” says WIRES campaigns manager Kristie Newton.
“I fear that young people will have a disconnect with the animals in the wild. How can they understand they are threatened by extinction, for example, when you can go buy one at your local pet shop?”
As was starkly highlighted in the lockdown TV series hit Tiger King, there are at least 5,000 captive tigers in the US (most are privately owned), which is significantly more than the number remaining in the wild.
But allowing people to keep tigers has done very little to help conservation of their wild brethren. Many of the “pet” tigers have inbred or mixed genetics, which makes them unhelpful for breeding programs. Plus, the regulations are so lax that there’s no way to even count how many privately owned tigers are in the country, let alone a system to plan for their conservation.
The Australian government spends $122 million a year on threatened species recovery. That’s about a tenth of what the US spends, and around 15% of the amount actually needed to recover Australia’s threatened species.
Another exotic species increasingly popular as a pet in the US is the sugar glider – legal to own in nearly every state, though a licence is required to breed them. Websites advertise their purchase for around $800 each.
These animals require specialised care, and although there is a community of owners who love having these marsupials as pets, many animal rights groups and conservation organisations are unimpressed.
“There has been evidence in the US of gliders kept as solitary pets developing behavioural issues, refusing to eat or self-mutilating through over-preening,” says Newton. “They are very prone to stress. Most vets lack training or experience with these species, so diagnosing and treating health issues can be difficult.”
Many animal researchers fall somewhere in the middle. Three quoll scientists wrote an article for The Conversation a few years ago, saying that although quolls could make good companion animals and reducing cats in Australia would be ideal, they think that pet quolls – in the same vein as US tigers – would be practically useless for conservation reasons.
Dingo researcher Kylie Cairns agrees. “It could increase knowledge about the plight of our native animals in Australia and engage the public better in caring for our native animals,” she says. However, “it is more likely that the captive animal population would become domesticated over time and follow selective breeding for easier-to-handle ‘pets’.
“It is unlikely that captive animals kept as pets would be bred in a manner that would allow them to be returned to the wild, or used for rewilding projects, and so their utility for conservation is limited.”
But there’s another question here, too. Apart from the small number of native pet owners we already have, do most people really want to replace their cat or dog with a native animal?
In a number of states around Australia you can already obtain licences for keeping quolls, gliders, wallabies and dingoes. Once you have a licence to keep a native animal, most of the time you don’t need a separate licence to breed them.
But in my home state of Victoria, once you spend the hundred dollars on a licence, you need to find someone to sell you an animal. On online sales site Gumtree, there is a waitlist for sugar gliders – and one squirrel glider for sale for $600. Which isn’t always easy.
“The availability of mammals varies widely,” explains Nicholas Petropoulos, a wildlife presenter and breeder. “If you wanted, say, hopping mice or sugar gliders you could find some for sale today. Ringtail or brushtail possums you’d likely have to wait until spring when babies are being weaned. For others, like quolls, you’d likely need to go on a waiting list for a breeder.
“To actually get them you’d join marsupial societies, get to know licenced breeders on social media, and contact zoos about their surplus lists.”
It seems that even if I wanted to replace my cat with a quoll, there are limited systems in place to acquire one. And most people, like me, are probably still uncomfortable with the idea of locking up native animals in our homes.
Perhaps it’s easier to keep them out of sight and out of mind, imagining them in idyllic native surrounds, far from humans, cats or foxes. Although native animal researchers might have significantly different views when it comes to keeping native animals as pets, all agree that not enough is being done to protect them in the wild. Even Archer is adamant that keeping native mammals as pets is just one step in a much larger conservation project – but one that he believes is critical.
“No animal we’ve ever put our arms around has ever gone extinct. They go extinct when we ignore them on the other side of the fence.”
Jacinta Bowler is a science journalist at Cosmos. They have a undergraduate degree in genetics and journalism from the University of Queensland and have been published in the Best Australian Science Writing 2022.