When I was four years old, I had a somewhat different version of the classic kids’ sandbox than most of my peers. My older brothers had built a little enclosure behind our house that was filled with rich South Florida loam and stocked with the local box turtles that would occasionally wander into our yard. I would collect snails, earthworms and bugs out of our garden, and wile away hours feeding and hanging out with my turtles. My brothers would watch me from their room or the patio, quite bemused, I am certain, by their odd little brother and his pals.
One day, I was amazed to discover several tiny and very different looking turtles in my pen. I asked my brothers about them, and they denied having added any émigrés to my turtle town. How was this possible? Finally, it dawned on me. My box turtles had children of their own. Now, that is a successful outdoor enclosure.
We think of our hobby as a way of bringing the natural world indoors and into our own world, but sometimes, it becomes reasonable and even prudent to take it back outside. It helps to know what does well outdoors and how outdoor enclosures are best managed.
I live in a geographic locale that is virtually bereft of seasons, and the advice I give my local customers would often be dead wrong for someone in a different weather zone. I often see advice online and even in books that seem to forget that notion. But anyone who is considering setting up an outdoor enclosure needs to be cognizant that seasonal extremes dramatically affect animals that are unwittingly exposed to them.
Tortoises, even many desert or tropical species, acclimate well to temperate environments if introduced gently and properly housed. This can be useful, especially with the huge—and hugely popular—spur-thighed tortoise, which can quickly outgrow most people’s limited indoor space. I always recommend a springtime introduction. This will allow the tortoise to put on weight through the spring and summer months and be well braced for the fall and winter months.
Keep in mind that most tortoises are burrowers, and a proper enclosure needs to be secure underground, as well as above. To this end, many people will sink a false floor several feet down upon which they build a pen, or at the least, they may sink a fence around the perimeter. It is important to secure the cage to prevent escapes, but it is at least equally important to keep predators out. A strong chain-link fence needs to not only surround the pet, but cover the area from above. Opossums, raccoons, coyotes, raptors, and even dogs and cats are potential threats to virtually any herp housed outside, especially tortoises and even seemingly safe water turtles. Your cage also needs a substantial lock as raccoons in particular have an almost primate-level acuity for figuring out latch systems.
To see a great addition to any outdoor terrarium setup, scroll down or click HERE.
One of the main reasons for investing in an outdoor cage is the advantage of allowing your pet the opportunity to bask in natural sunlight, but, given that, it is essential that it also always has access to shade.
Even in our temperate climate, provisions must be made to protect tortoises from the extremes of heat, cold and weather conditions. I recommend a well-modified doghouse for tortoises. Widen the door if necessary so that the tortoise will have easy access, and fit the door with a flexible plastic flap. For cooler weather—but not hardcore winter, when pets will need to be provided for indoors—outfit the doghouse with a hard plastic whelping mat. Of course, this means you will have to run electricity out to it, so that even in cool temperatures the house will provide some semitropical heat. These hard plastic heat mats are designed for puppies and baby pigs, but work wonders for our shelled friends as well. When heat waves hit, the dog house—with the pad shut off—will be shady solace for the tortoise. One more modification: always have the house slightly elevated with the entrance ramped to protect the animals from flooding.
I must emphasize one more caveat regarding outdoor tortoise enclosures. Tortoises seem to have evolved an innate good sense about plants from their native lands, and seem to know which ones to eat and which ones to avoid. Such is not the case when they encounter plants new to their species, and many will happily munch down toxic plants, only to suffer when the toxins hit their systems. Do some research to determine what plants in our wholly unnatural gardens might be toxic to a tortoise.
You may be wondering what all this information does for you, the reptile seller. At the very least, you now have a brand new customer base for doghouses and heat mats. A truly industrious store might offer to design and install the entire enclosure. That would start getting into some serious revenue.
On occasion, a customer expresses interest in establishing caging for snakes and lizards outdoors, and with few exceptions, this is something I try to dissuade people from trying. Keep in mind that glass amplifies the infrared bands of sunlight, quickly turning a glass terrarium into an oven on even on a mild day. I have never seen a successful glass tank kept outside.
On the other hand, some of the larger lizards like monitors and tegus will thrive, at least through the warm months, in an enclosure not unlike the tortoise pen described above.
Another lizard that really excels outdoors is the chameleon. As chameleons species have adapted to an arboreal life, they have a special relationship with the sun, and greatly benefit from time spent in a screen enclosure. Keep in mind that chameleons are a diverse group, and the high temperatures that veiled chameleons love will quickly kill a montane species like the Jackson’s chameleon. For any of them, and for any animal kept outdoors, access to shade is an essential.
While our emphasis in this business should always be toward bringing a bit of the natural world into our customers’ homes, being prepared to help that segment of your clientele who are thinking “outside the box” can work to your business’ benefit. Be prepared.
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.
Improving Upon Nature
No herp enthusiast would consider a terrarium complete without providing some nooks and crannies in which their cold-blooded friends can hide. With this in mind, Milwaukee-based Python Products, Inc. (pythonproducts.com) offers its line of naturalistic Hide Aways. “In nature, reptiles need a place where they can hide to feel safe,” says Lance Reyniers, president of Python Products. “And our Hide Aways deliver that by acting as the pet’s own private condo.” Although designed to mimic the natural aesthetic of hollowed-out logs, Python’s Hide Aways’ durable, non-toxic clay construction actually improves upon nature because they are easy to clean and will not fade or rot. This makes them particularly well suited to outdoor terrarium setups, which may be subjected to the elements. Individually hand crafted in the USA, Python Hide Aways are available in four sizes: mini (8 in.), small (12 in.), medium (14 in.) and large (16 in.).