SMH: ERIK JENSEN; August 1, 2010
Pest potential … a male squirrel for sale for $1200 in a Broadway pet store. Photo: Jon Reid
THEY are touted as the next big thing in niche pets – hand-reared squirrels being sold in Sydney pet shops for more than $1200.
They are also regarded by the federal government as an “extreme threat” to Australia.
“That’s just someone behind a desk, mate,” said Chris Hibbard, who runs a squirrel-breeding farm in western Sydney. “There’s never been any study done that says they will become a pest. That’s just the government saying scientifically they’re related to a rat and we have rat and mice problems. I cannot see how any animal who produces one or three animals in a nest could become a problem.”
Squirrels may be kept as pets in NSW as long as they are desexed and microchipped.
There are eight licensed squirrel breeders in NSW. But Mr Hibbard said he was the only one breeding the northern palm squirrel for sale in pet shops, where they first appeared three months ago. “I think they will be a very popular pet in the inner city, because of housing,” he said.
Mr Hibbard would not reveal how many squirrels he had on his farm at Berkshire Park but said the breeding numbers had doubled in the last season.
Five shops are selling the animals in Sydney.
“People are interested in them but they are very expensive,” Pets on Broadway assistant manager Katherine Weeks said of the two squirrels her shop has for sale. “They’ve the temperament of rats. You need a harness on them. They do run [at] 15 km/h.”
Invasive Species Council policy officer Carol Booth said the dangers posed by a feral squirrel population were not worth the benefits of keeping them as pets.
“The risk has already been rated as extreme by an expert committee,” Dr Booth said. “It’s crazy to allow that risk. How can I put that more strongly?”
Squirrels are defined as a species of “high pest potential” by the Non-Indigenous Animals Act. The government’s National Vertebrate Pests Committee lists northern palm squirrels as an “extreme threat”.