Constructing a Simple Vivarium for Small Reptiles and Amphibians

Oh my God, your child has just appeared toad in hand and he insists on keeping it. What to do? This is a basic guide to constructing a temporary home for your treasured guest.

I have always loved every kind of animal and that meant that my mother, also known as the world's most patient women, had to put up with quite a few surprises-like the time the box turtle I had stashed on the porch upended his box and crawled into the kitchen while mom was cooking or the time the bucket with the eel my pop caught in the Shinnecock Canal at the Eastern end of Long Island upended and proved that these animals can stay alive and kicking after hours in the bottom of a bucket, a true-life demonstration of how the first marine animals began evolving for their march onto land. And then there was my friendship with the hamster breeders...

Into every schoolchild's life a few creepy-crawlies must fall. Scientifically, of course, I am referring to small reptiles and amphibians such as tiny turtles, frogs, toads and salamanders harvested from suburban lot or woods. When your child brings home such a prize, you will want to keep it alive until you can safely practice catch and release. Here are the basics of constructing a vivarium that can keep such a treasure unharmed for a few weeks or months-just enough time for your child to become bored.

All reptiles and amphibians are cold-blooded. That means that they cannot control their own body temperatures as mammals and birds do. This presents the greatest challenge towards long-term custodianship of such animals. The simplest and cheapest solutions that I present will be acceptable only for short-term observation because keeping an animal long-term requires a precise ability to provide light, heat and shade.

Begin with an aquarium that has sprouted leaks or a wide-mouthed container with a lid, such as a rescued pretzel jar from Costco. Inside put a 1 inch layer of pebbles for drainage. Add a layer of activated charcoal for odor control and finish off with a few inches of a good soiless mix such as Miracle Grow Potting soil.

Add some small plants. Good choices include any variety of small ferns, foliage plants like fittonia, little African violets or miniature gloxinias. Anything cheap and available in your area and suitable for the temperature that you will keep the vivarium (terrarium with living things) at. I have added some good sources at the end of this article that tell you more about plants and maintaining correct temperatures.

The purpose of these plants is to provide shelter and sanitation and to hold the water that these animals need to keep their little skins moist. You should expect to mist regularly both for the plant's sake and for the animals that will get their water by licking it off the leaves.

Add a rock for sunning and a second source of water, such as a small buried lid or sea shell where water can be found at all times and where a parched or overheated reptile or amphibian can submerge himself.

You will also add a rock for sunning and, if possible, a small heat-source such as an incandescent bulb that the animal can move closer to or further from as it requires. He may also like a few pieces of bark to hide under or a twig to climb. Put the whole shebang in an area where it will receive bright, indirect sun or be semi-shaded. You will want to keep things between the mid 60's to low 80's or your guests will freeze or cook.

Providing lunch for these guests can be a challenge too, another reason that I recommend the catch and release policy. A good guidebook on reptiles and amphibians can provide precise details, but think, alive and moving. Many animals simply cannot see dead prey. That includes the spadefoad toad your child snatched from the garden.

To keep these animals happy you will either have to snatch their preferred prey from whence you originally found them or culture a few mealworms from the pet store in a jar with some stale crackers and a cut potato for moisture. Earthworms and garden slugs come in handy too and there are easily obtained.

Smaller amphibians like salamanders will be happy with tubifex worms which are normally the diet for fish. This little worms normally live in sewage and are very easily kept alive for a few days. Keep them moist and feed quickly. In fact, dump the whole mess into a wet area of your animal's temporary home and let him figure it out.

When your child's attention starts to wane, slip the animal back from whence it came, but never dump exotics or pet-store bought friends. It may be a death sentence for them or even worse, they may thrive but destroy the environment in the process.

One last thing, please take the time to educate yourself and the children about nature. Some animals are severely endangered and should just be left where they are. Others are actively dangerous. Whenever I see children at the Reptile House, I always point out the snapping turtle and warn children never to approach any turtle that looks like a dinosaur.

It is the only dangerous reptile here, but in your area you may have truly beautiful specimens like coral snakes. Make sure curious children know where not to collect, such as near the old walls of farmhouses that may contain rattlesnakes or copper mouths.

One last caution, tell children to clean their hands, clean their hands, clean their hands, after touching any reptile or amphibian. These animals can harbor a serious illness known as salmonella and this bacterial-borne food poisoning is a large reason why major stores no longer carry baby red-eared sliders as they did in the past.

Good luck on welcoming and caring for your beloved, but hopefully temporary, guest.