The other day, I was teaching a family how to set up their new baby corn snake, and I said, “Let’s start out with the cage.” Dad immediately corrected me: “Can we call it an environment? ‘Cage’ seems so… like a jail.”
You know what? He was right. Language is a living thing, and at this point, “cage” has enough negative associations that we should all get on the same page. Let’s call them environments or homes, or anything less pejorative.
There are a fair number of options for enclosures currently on the market, and in this article we will try to discuss which are appropriate and when. It breaks down thusly: glass tanks, with and without built on tops; plastic housing; and wooden enclosures. Diﬀerent options are appropriate to particular animals and situations, so let’s discuss.
Glass tanks work well for a wide variety of smaller animals and are particularly good when the residents require higher humidity or semi-aquatic setups. There are the standard fish tanks that, when covered with a screen top, are fine for a lot of uses, but problematic when it comes to snakes or lizards that are prone to wander.
For those inhabitants, you will need a tank with a built-on slide screen top. Even these can be problematic for certain snakes, as the tops sometimes have enough leeway for baby snakes to worm their way out. Masking tape on both ends where the top meets the tank can solve that, but the screen is held in place with a small rubber strip that can dry out and crack over time. That rubber strip is available at many hardware stores, and I recommend replacement every few years.
One of the disadvantages of glass tanks is that servicing them is anything but ergonomic, requiring an awkward up and down motion, whereas front opening homes can be worked with more easily and safely. To that end, both Hagen and Zoo Med have lines of glass tanks with swinging front doors. The Hagen line has a better price point, but it also has a few design issues, like double doors that break up the visual experience. More importantly, the Hagen tanks have a plastic support bar running centrally across the screen top, which, if one is sloppy with a heat lamp, will immediately melt and ruin the tank. The Zoo Med tanks mostly have a single front pane and no plastic bar—and carry a higher price tag. My solution? I try to carry both lines!
At this point I’d like to take a moment to discuss enclosure size. Many of my customers want to buy a baby animal and a home that will still work when it is an adult. This is almost always inadvisable, and clients should be well warned not to try it.
Let’s use a hatchling Bearded Dragon as an example. A baby will do quite well in a 10-gallon tank, but within a matter of months, will need something closer to a 40-gallon. Why not buy the 40-gallon to start?
It is nearly impossible to heat up a large tank without getting small cold spots that will be below the animal’s parameters. With an adult, this would not be a problem, as the animal’s physical spread will greatly exceed the size of any cold spots. But a baby would potentially get into that spot, experience a sudden drop in temperature below what it might ever encounter in the wild, to the extent that its metabolism would shut down. It would thus simply sit there, waiting for the heat to return, and end up getting sick.
I’ve had some customers, in an eﬀort of frugality, try to block oﬀ their 40-gallon tank and set up a sort of tank-within-tank. It inevitably looks unattractive and is fraught with logistical problems. I advise customers at the outset to buy a 10-gallon, knowing full well that within a few months, you’ll be back for a full-sized home. If you don’t want to do that, consider the Leopard Gecko, which will be perfectly happy in a 10-gallon tank for its entire life.
Let’s turn from the glass enclosures to the plastic ones. Their advocates tend to be adamant about these environments, and I wish I could be one of them. I am not.
Their fans tend to be breeders and serious hobbyists, who have dedicated entire rooms and even buildings to their pursuits. In these cases, enthusiasts tend to keep a rather high ambient temperature in their reptile rooms, and so the cages themselves require little additional heat. But, for the more casual reptile hobbyist with only a few pets, the problem of applying rather high heat to a plastic enclosure can be nearly insurmountable. I also find their design looks fine as a bank in a room dedicated to this one purpose, but to my eye they look very uninviting in a bedroom or living room.
There is also an issue in our ability as brick-and-mortar retailers to find an economic niche with them. The manufacturers tend to sell direct to retail customers and have not factored in a wholesale number with which we can carry the products at a competitive rate. We have been priced out of the commercial formula. We sometimes acquire these units when we buy large collections, and we price them to go. But for most of my customers, they hold no particular charm. As I write this, there is a large stack of them sitting in my driveway at bargain prices.
That brings us to wooden enclosures. If you do any volume in larger reptiles at all, it behooves you to seek out a carpenter to partner with in the construction of wooden pet housing. They have myriad advantages over glass tanks: they are easier and more eﬃcient to heat properly (over time, this feature alone can oﬀset their additional cost), they look more like a piece of furniture and like a certain box that emits light in all of our houses (some call it television), they draw your attention. They are easier to keep clean; most animals feel more secure with the diminished visual information of wooden sides; they retain a resale value better than glass tanks of the same size; they are more durable. And, with the right carpenter, you can take on special orders for custom sizes and styles.
For larger snakes, lizards and tortoises, they are basically essential. Unfortunately, no major manufacturer has taken on the task of producing a national brand, probably due to the logistical nightmare of shipping.
Most wood workers I have worked with want to build them out of pressboard. For many animals, that might be fine. However, anything requiring any kind of higher humidity will find their new home warping, buckling and even turning to mush in no time at all. Try to convince them to do a line in ply as well; those are far more durable.
There is one more huge advantage to having a good line of wooden environments— the giant chains of mega-pet stores that threaten business for folks like us…don’t. A good line of animal homes can be your ace in the hole. PB