By Rebecca Stout
The verdict is in, and it’s a great one for small animal lovers. As of January 3, 2014, it is now legal to own sugar gliders (among many other unusual pets) in the state of Massachusetts. Getting sugar gliders legalized was a long, arduous three-year-battle for Michelle Cutler of Massachusetts. But through her dedication and tenacity it was accomplished.
Despite being integral in bringing about the changes, Cutler is quick to point out that she was not alone in the endeavor. It took the collaboration of many people, including sugar glider lovers, political representatives and the herpetological community at large, to get the bill passed that allowed the amendments to 321 CMR 9.01. The changes also permit people to own various exotic species, such as the following reptiles: the green tree python (Chondropython spp.), the emerald tree boa (Corallus caninus), all of the jungle runners (Ameiva spp.), true chameleons, frilled lizards (Chlamydosaurus spp.), spiny-tailed lizards (Uromastyx spp.), and one small species of monitor, the spiny-tailed or ridge-tailed Monitor (Varanus acanthurus).
The quest to legalize sugar gliders all began for Cutler with a Google search of monkeys. One of the search results included a photo of a sugar glider even though it’s a marsupial and not a monkey. She was fascinated by the adorable creature, and it was love at first sight. Unfortunately, she learned that Massachusetts was among several states where gliders were illegal as pets. Other areas where they are illegal as pets include Pennsylvania, California, Hawaii, Alaska and the boroughs of New York City, along with a few other townships in New York. She wondered why and was dumbfounded to find out that they are considered an exotic pet and that they were never legal in Massachusetts to begin with. They were simply never added to the list of pets that residents are allowed to own.
“It never made any sense that they weren’t legal when other potentially dangerous animals are legal,” Cutler said. She added that some of those can go feral, but sugar gliders cannot. In addition, the small marsupials do not harbor a lot of diseases that are transmittable to humans.
Louise Ferrari of NH Sugar Gliders is a USDA-licensed breeder who also takes in and rehabilitates rescues. One of the reasons she began breeding was to contribute healthy and well-socialized animals to the community by introducing lineage (pedigree) into the pet population. She explains that the ability to know their genetics is important to preserve and maintain their health and well-being. Legalizing sugar gliders in Massachusetts may encourage other responsible breeders.
Ferrari also said that previously, gliders that were being kept illegally in Massachusetts could only be seen by a veterinarian outside the state, which meant appropriate veterinary care was sometimes missed. “Now they are legal, they can be treated appropriately,” she said. “I do not sell sugar gliders to people in illegal states, because I do not feel it fair to the gliders or owners. If you are caught keeping sugar gliders in an illegal state they can and are confiscated and many times can be euthanized.”
In order to get legalization, Cutler tried two different routes. One was going directly to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MDFW) to change the regulations in 321 CMR 9.01, and the other was trying to change it legislatively. She reached out to several representatives, including Rep. Thomas Golden’s office in Lowell, Massachusetts. He wrote and tried to pass H.3271 to legalize sugar gliders more than two years ago. After that Rep. Anne Gobi, who is on the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, filed H.4442 which was a study order. That never seemed to go anywhere. The proposed regulation changes to the CMR with the MDFW sat on the governor’s desk seemingly forgotten.
Passing legislation is a long process in that a bill needs to go from person to person. There are many steps involved before it is signed off by the governor. Despite relentless calls from Cutler to push it along, years passed. “Evidently it was too small of an issue for them to put as a priority, and it got pushed aside. They can’t simply change just one thing, such as legalizing sugar gliders. They have to wait for all proposals in a regulation to be approved.”
Progress began when she contacted Rep. Kate Hogan who filed H.725 at Cutler’s request. Meanwhile the New England Herpetological Society fought hard to push the bill through because they have long wanted many of the reptiles legalized that are now included on the new 321 CMR 9.01 exemption list. Slowly Cutler pushed forward with her campaign by writing petitions, gathering signatures, reaching out to the masses, attending various proceedings and hearings, and trying to educate others about sugar gliders and their illegal status.
On June 3, 2013, a hearing took place at the David Prouty High School in Spencer, Massachusetts.
“The meeting was sponsored by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, co-chaired by state representative Anne Gobi,” Cutler said. “I brought two of my son’s girlfriends, and we had only three minutes to speak about why sugar gliders should be legalized.”
Armed with a map differentiating legal and illegal glider ownership states, she demonstrated the impracticality of the small state of Massachusetts being surrounded by legal glider ownership states. Most of the other illegal regions were far west of them. She submitted hefty petitions. In addition she told the committee that she had never heard of anyone having an issue or problem on record involving people who wanted or had sugar gliders. She also pointed out that the changes would save money and perhaps even increase revenue for Massachusetts. She even took a stuffed flying squirrel and glider to give a size comparison.
“I assured them that there are no known dangerous, communicable diseases and that they do not pose any threat to the people or our environment, and can’t repopulate in the wild, as they could never survive New England’s weather. They don’t even technically fall into exotic pets according to USDA guidelines.”
Despite the event being publicized, the issue again became stagnant.
Another key hearing was held on September 23, 2013, in Dalton, Massachusetts, at the MDFW. However due to being overwhelmed by so many interested people, the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife said they could write in instead coming to the hearing. A few reptile people and others still came. Cutler never let up, “I took steps to make sure everyone wrote in about the sugar gliders.” The hearing went well and there was no opposition regarding gliders. The MDFW panel eventually voted in favor of the changes.
Cutler was told that Massachusetts residents should be able to own them sometime in November of 2014. But she felt it was being ignored because it wasn’t announced. Cutler remembers poignantly, “People started to even doubt me, and the glider and animal people questioned my credibility and if it even really happened.”
So she contacted the Boston headquarters of the MDFW throughout November 2013 through January 2014 but was told that a few more technical steps needed to be taken before it could be enacted. Finally in the second week of January 2014, she got the official word from MDFW Thomas French that they were legalized as of January 3, 2014, and that date would be honored. But because she could not find an announcement on the website or anywhere else, she asked for the legalization date to be put in writing for her. It was finally announced on the website in February.
These animals are unique and many say they are like no other because of the deep bond they form with their owners.
“They bring me a joy that is indescribable and almost like that of a parent with a child,” Ferrari said. “I spend many hours each day in our glider room. They are always happy to see you; they are playful and have more toddler toys than most children! Every single one of them has a unique personality, some are shy, some are outgoing, some cuddly, some more adventurous. When you build that trust with them, it is truly a rewarding experience.”
It must be noted that these pets are not for everyone as they are nocturnal, require very specific care, have a complex diet and require a specialized veterinarian. They require a lot of cleaning to keep them from being stinky and because they are messy. Sugar gliders cannot be potty trained and mark a lot … on you.
But for Cutler, they are the perfect pet. She has had ADHD all her life and was diagnosed with fibromyalgia three or more years ago. Because of this, she suffers from moderate to severe pain throughout her body, sleep problems and depression. “My gliders are very therapeutic for me and they bring me such joy and happiness,” she said. “Sometimes when I’m having a bad day and many nights when I cannot sleep, I go out into the glider room because they’re nocturnal so they’re all up playing. I find myself smiling, sometimes just standing or sitting there watching them, taking them out to play with them, or clipping nails and getting pooped on. I don’t know what I would do without them.”
Today, Cutler can be seen out with her gliders attached to her and in pouches when she travels about and store hops. She loves being stopped by people and asked about her babies and takes advantage of that by educating as many people as she can about them. She can now say that residents can rejoice in the fact that they are now able to enjoy these beautiful creatures … legally.