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Making cozies for tiny exotic pets employs 5 locals

News editor

Linda Sardou is a woman awash in fleece and on a mission to make life better for the “short-headed rope dancers” of the world.

A corner of a workshop at The Outdoors Inn at Marion County Park and Lake, crammed with bolts of brightly colored soft fabric and cutting tables, is where Sardou’s mission takes flight.

Working with four other women, Sardou creates plush pouches, hammocks, tunnels, cage covers, and other items by thousands for wide-eyed, long-tailed, furry creatures that fit in the palm of one’s hand.

Short-headed rope dancers is the translation of the scientific name for sugar gliders, tiny marsupials from Australia and Indonesia that are popular exotic pets. Resembling a smaller version of flying squirrels, sugar gliders are fond of nectar and can sail up to 100 yards from tree to tree.

Sardou became enamored with sugar gliders 10 years ago when she discovered them at a Wichita boat and travel show. She came home with two, Sam and Choco.

“I had no clue what they were about,” she said. “They’re worse than taking care of an infant. You have to watch them every second. They get into everything.”

Sam and Choco quickly worked their way into her heart, and into her shirt, too.

“They like to sleep in tight quarters, and what better place than your bra,” Sardou said. “There are a lot of glider owners that do that. Hearing your heartbeat calms them down.”

Sardou became an expert in sugar glider care, and she became an advocate when she learned that the world of sugar gliders had its own version of puppy mills, unscrupulous breeders more intent on volume sales than quality care.

Sardou worked with a Tennessee-based breeder to develop an approach that provides new owners information and items to care properly for sugar gliders.

“People don’t understand the involvement in taking care of them,” she said. “If you don’t have the time or the patience to take care of them, they remain wild.”

The breeder, Perfect Pocket Pets, was dissatisfied with products from a Chinese supplier and asked whether Sardou would be interested in making them.

Bonding pouches — fleece bags in which sugar gliders can ride hanging from an owner’s neck — were the first item Sardou tackled. She enlisted the help of a neighbor, Donna Kaiser, after showing her a prototype.

“It was kind of a challenge,” Kaiser said. “I figured out how to do it. She took it and made some changes so it was easier for her to do. Then she said, ‘Can you make the cage cover? I just can’t figure it out.’ So she got me doing the cage covers.”

Sardou can make 100 bonding pouches a month.

A new version designed for air travelers to carry sugar gliders with them is an industry first, Sardou said. After years of lobbying, Transportation Safety Authority approved gliders for carry-on for people with documentation from a psychologist that says the pet is necessary for emotional support.

Sardou worked with Western Associates to embroider a red heart with a cross and the words “Approved Support Animal” on the front.

“They were amazed,” she said. “They had never heard about this before.”

Hammocks and tunnels provide places for sleeping and stimulating recreation, Sardou said. Banana, apple, orange, and carrot-themed items are in the works. Gliders are active at night, so cage covers shut out daylight to help them sleep.

She also makes children’s hats that look like sugar gliders, complete with “little ears sticking up.”

Marjory Boese, Rita Dome, and Melinda Dome also are part of a sewing crew that has turned out more than 5,000 items, and business is booming.

“Things have picked up tremendously over the past three to four months,” Sardou said. “They developed a new marketing strategy so they’re able to get their product out there a lot broader.”

Sardou carries on without Sam and Choco, who died within four months of each other last year. She doesn’t plan to get another sugar glider but welcomes the chance to stay involved with them.

“At least I know I’m doing something to help other gliders,” she said. “That was my whole objective.”

Last modified June 15, 2016

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