Some pet owners desire critters that go beyond your average cat and dog
Danielle Carrera, 22, spends a lot of time researching rodents. After all, she’s got more than a dozen of them at her Syracuse home. Last April, she went from docile hamsters and rats to a fearless prairie dog named Dolly, joining the recent exotic pets craze. “Even ferrets are so common now,” she says. “A prairie dog just sounded so cool.”
Carrera bought Dolly from Ack’s Exotic Pets, 8081 Brewerton Road, Cicero. Carl Ackerbauer, 32, opened the pet store more than four years ago. It’s currently home to about 100 animals including your usual turtles and rabbits. What makes this pet store exotic is its selection of U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved animals like hedgehogs, sugar gliders and, yes, prairie dogs. And what makes this pet store super-exotic is its display of animals that aren’t even for sale like the South American Coatimundis, which resemble raccoons, and an Asian Burmese python, an 11foot yellow snake.
“I didn’t want to do dogs and cats because too many other places do it,” says Ackerbauer. “It’s kind of boring to me, and I wanted to keep things interesting and fun.”
Last year, Ackerbauer sold about 100 hedgehogs, 25 sugar gliders and 120 prairie dogs.
The low number for sugar glider sales was because of the difficulty in finding someone to supply these flying squirrel-like marsupials, he explains. Sugar gliders only have one or two babies twice a year. “The demand for these pets is super-high,” says Ackerbauer. “I don’t know if it’s maybe because of the Internet or word of mouth, but the demand has definitely gone up in the past couple of years.”
Initially, Carrera learned about the possibility of owning a prairie dog from a close friend.
After surfing the Internet for as much information as she could about this social and burrow hurting rodent, she drove over to Ack’s Exotic Pets to meet the furry family.
Carrera realized prairie dogs are known for their vicious bites, which could take off chunks of skin. But Dolly didn’t seem as aggressive or as skittish as the others, she recalls. She took her home and put her in a ferret cage that she had, which Dolly chewed herself out of immediately—probably because of its plastic parts, Carrera says. After a few more tries with other cages, Carrera discovered that the one that worked was a customized, primarily metal, two-story cage.
While Carrera’s interaction with Dolly went smoothly at the pet store, the situation changed back at her house. “I tried picking her up, and she freaked out and bit my finger,” says Carrera. “I was like, ‘OK, that hurt,’ and I was kind of discouraged at first. The next day, it was the same thing again, and I could barely get her out of her cage. She just kept running away. So I was like, ‘OK, this isn’t fun anymore.’” She waited it out. She talked to Dolly near the bars of the cage and put her hands near her without making direct contact. It took her a good two or three months until she was finally able to take Dolly out without getting. “It’s a very slow process,” says Carrera.
“You’re like trying to tame a wild animal—trying to get them to like you.”
Now, Carrera can’t get Dolly to stop barking at her. She constantly vies for her attention.
“Dolly is a huge challenge for me,” says Carrera. “All of my other animals know what they’re supposed to do and know what they’re not supposed to do. She does, too, but she’ll push the limits and boundaries just to see what she can get away with, like a 2-year-old. It’s an interesting challenge for me to figure out her habits and her quirks. She’s a lot of fun—and she can actually be pretty relaxing, too.”
The most important aspect of owning an exotic pet is doing your research, says Ackerbauer. Since pets in general have different needs, it’s essential to know the kind of environments these exotic ones are coming from and what they require to survive. For example, Carrera provides Dolly with pieces of old clothing and broken cardboard boxes to create a giant nest. She also gives her rope and animal chew toys that she regularly gnaws to naturally wear her teeth down.
Most of these exotic pets also require specific foods, which Ackerbauer carries. But most of their diets are supplemented with fruits and vegetables—easy to find at grocery stores.
Obviously, these pets are going to be a little more on the expensive side. Hedgehogs usually go for about $130; sugar gliders usually go for about $200; and prairie dogs usually cost from $100 to $150, says Ackerbauer.
So if you’re interested in owning an exotic pet, do some research and visit an exotic-pet store. Ackerbauer accepts trade-ins if you want to bring in your current pet that you may no longer be able to care of for a lower-maintenance animal. Or maybe you want a “cool,” new exotic pet. Just make sure you’re ready for the baggage.
Hello, Dolly: Danielle Carerra cradles her pet prairie dog, Dolly, inside her Syracuse home.