Setting Up a Herptile Habitat

I tend to focus on the animals when writing about our business, and for good reason. The animals are the stars; they are the reason we do what we do. But, just like any successful sitcom, the star is always only as good as the supporting cast. In our case, the supporting cast is the cage and its contents. Caging is also where the money’s made—let’s talk about it.

There is a local competitor of mine who manufactures his own cages and refuses all pet sales unless the customer also purchases one of his cages. I think that’s going too far, as many customers come to me already possessing a cage and, truth be told, his cages are appropriate for some animals, but not for others. By the same token, if somebody buys an animal from me without buying the supporting enclosure and materials, I offer no guarantee on the sale, as I have no input that the animal will be properly housed.

On almost a daily basis, I see people across my counter who have made their purchases elsewhere and are now wondering why their new pet is failing. Fortunately, I am usually able to set them straight and, if it’s not too late, bring their new pet around to health and vitality. It’s strange to think, but the ace in your hand can be that few of your competitors have any clue as to how to set up a reptile cage.


Getting Cagey

The first consideration is always wood cage with a glass door or glass tank? For some creatures, either can work, but for most, one is far superior to the other. For instance, all amphibians and aquatic turtles will prosper in a glass tank, and almost all will fail in a wood enclosure. By the same token, most snakes, lizards and tortoises will find comfort in a wooden cage.

I believe it is absolutely essential to stock both. Tanks, and tanks designed specifically for herps, are easy to stock. Exoterra, Zoomed, Protean Terrarium Design and a myriad of local manufacturers around the country do a fine job with an array of excellent tanks. Wooden cages can be tricky.

Over the years, I have seen many cage builders come and go, and to that end, I am always encouraging when someone inquires about the idea of building a line of cages for me, even when I’m already sitting pretty with a builder. Wooden cages have many, many advantages over glass tanks: durability and longevity, resale value, ease of cleaning, security (animals escape from wooden cages purely from human error, whereas glass tanks are vulnerable in a number of ways) and more.

Wooden cages, if well crafted, look like a piece of furniture, whereas glass tanks always look like glass tanks. Wooden cages with internal lighting tend to draw the eye, almost to the point of mesmerism. Glass tanks, with fixtures atop them, do not quite have the same air of mystery. Finally, in the end, wooden cages are an investment that will save customers money in the long run.

How? Well, on the outset, a glass tank will probably necessitate the purchase of a dimmable heat lamp, UV light and heat pad. You are looking at somewhere in the vicinity of $100 retail for those items. My wooden cages have both fluorescent and incandescent fixtures already installed and, because the cage holds heat efficiently, no pad is required. Also, due to that superior heat retention, you can heat a wooden cage using far less wattage than a glass tank could offer.

Some animals require a glass tank to start, and a wooden cage later on. The classic case would be a baby Bearded Dragon. Beardies go from 2 in. newborns to full sized adults in about six to eight months. If you put that baby into a full sized (2 ft. by 3 ft. by 2 ft.) enclosure at the start, two things will happen. First, you’ll have trouble finding the little thing. Second, it will, in roaming that vast frontier, end up in inevitable micro-cool spots. Its metabolism will slow down and it might not think to move. It will languish at cool temperatures and even get sick and die. Those micro-areas wouldn’t effect an adult, but that baby can be in big trouble. I always start folks off with a 10 gal. tank and advise them that within three months they should be ready to invest in the Beardies’ permanent home.


Caging Errors

One of the most common problems I see with animals purchased elsewhere is that the customers have been sold the wrong-sized cage, and usually the error is on the side of too big. For instance, a Leopard Gecko will never outgrow a 10 gal. tank. Anything much larger is both wasted space and potentially dangerous. Reptiles, even those that are predators, are also potentially prey, and an overly large cage will make them feel exposed and vulnerable.

Here’s my rule regarding snakes and cage size: visualize your snake in a relaxed, coiled-up position. Colubrid snakes (king snakes, rat snakes, etc.) generally need a cage three to four times the footprint of their body. Boas and pythons require an even smaller percentage, two to three times is fine. You will hear other guidelines regarding size related to the length of the snake, but those are nonsense. Snakes’ muscles don’t atrophy, and they don’t exercise. They also don’t need to stretch out.

Lizards generally need a bit more space, but again, too much is as bad as too small. Arboreal geckos, of course, will be wanting vertical space, but the cage’s footprint can be negligible. Ground geckos are, for the most part, fine in a 10 gal. Rocky outcroppers, like Uromastyx and Bearded Dragons, will want a cage that is generally a cube, as they tend to bask at a 45 degree angle.

Iguanas, tortoises and monitors are three exceptions to this rule. Two of them are vegetarian and essentially grazers. They spend their days scuttling about and thus need enough space to roam. Monitors, contrary to most scaled predators, are active hunters. They are smart and investigative, and want large cages with plenty of things to check out. You will need to accommodate those urges.

Many times I’ve seen a monitor, even in an enormous cage, scratching away at the door. Many interpret this as an attempt at escape, but I think that’s in error. I think they are simply confounded by being able to see forward but not go forward. There might be a tasty bug right around that corner.

We are in the business to sell animals, but the animal sale is really just a way to get dry goods sold, because those are your real profit center. Your expertise should be the motivator to getting the cage and supplies sold. That is why your customer has chosen you over the chain stores to deck them out. You can do a good pet sale, but a great cage sale might just be right around that corner. PB

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.