When watching snakes, lizards or turtles in a shop or a zoo, have you ever wondered why and whether it is worth starting a terrarium adventure? Personally, while talking about my hobby, I was very often met with questions “why do you need this at all?”, “What’s in there for you?” “Do they do anything besides lying down?” “Aren’t you afraid they will bite you?”, “Horrible, how can anyone like that…?” etc. Terrarium hobby can become a real passion, a source of inspiration giving a different perspective on the surrounding nature. However, like any hobby, it requires knowledge. I will tell you how to start your adventure with this hobby and why it is worth knowing it better.
My first steps with terrarium
For as long as I can remember I have always been most fascinated by animals other than mammals or birds. From an early age, I have enjoyed watching underground life of nearby forests, swamps and drainage ditches – the habitats of frogs, toads, newts, lizards and snakes. Admittedly, I could also follow a woodpecker far into the forest. However, I was far more likely to observe nature on my knees with my nose in the rushes than with my head looking up.
The birth of moor frogs and grey toads has always been the first sign of spring for me. Not swallows or storks. It is the amplexus, or love hug of amphibians, with which their life cycle begins, that indicated the departure of winter. At this time of the year, virtually every major puddle in the woods or ditch with water is overflowing with amphibians anxious for the continuation of their species, avidly making love. Later, with the coming of warmer days, lizards and snakes emerge from their winter refuges. There used to be a lot of sand lizards and common lizards in the area, so you had to be careful where you stepped. Grass snakes on my favorite meadow could be found in every size.
Around the second half of the summer, the first individuals hatched in, no bigger than a shoelace. I loved this cautious entry into the habitat of these snakes. Making sure I will scare them off before they’re in my line of sight. The way reptiles move, their activity starting with daily sunbathing to get the needed energy for hunting, their amazing camouflage and secretive lifestyle gave me great satisfaction with every successful observation. It all fascinated me. The fact that most of my peers remained indifferent or scared made me feel special. More than once, I’ve been attacked when I indignantly stood up for inflatable frogs or tortured snakes.
Are they active at all?
Reptiles are much more active animals than you might think. Admittedly, in order to boost their metabolism and jump into “high gear” they need the sun, or more precisely heat and UV radiation. This allows them, as cold-blooded animals, to raise their body temperature, thereby increasing their metabolism and obtaining the energy they need to live. Kept in unsuitable conditions, on a poor diet, often in too small, inadequately decorated terraria, they are in poor condition and actually look as if they were not moving at all. It’s really sad to watch.
A healthy reptile is strong and active. In the morning it goes under a source of light and heat to “recharge its batteries”. It then sets off in search of food. It usually rests after a meal. Not overfed, kept on a proper diet, reptiles sniff and roam around the terrarium. Of course, they are not as active as small mammals or birds. There are also differences in the degree of activity between different species of reptiles or amphibians. In the vast majority, however, they are far more active than they seem to be. Everything depends on how much attention we devote to proper arrangement of the terrarium, its size and adequate diet. Often the cause of low mobility of reptiles is improper diet, leading to obesity, emaciation and avitaminosis manifested by apathy.
Aren’t you afraid they will bite you?
Terrarium animals, even those born in captivity, are very often “semi-wild”, untamed animals with self-preservation instincts not yet suppressed by many years of breeding. It is natural that in stressful situations (such as transportation after purchase or taking the animal out of the terrarium for basic activities such as health check and cleaning) they will try to defend themselves. Admittedly, there are species that have been farmed animals for tens of generations and in their case the subject of wildness, fear of man, practically does not exist. They can easily become accustomed to human presence and the daily maintenance procedures in the terrarium. Letting reptiles loose around the apartment for extended periods of time is unacceptable. However, we can always let them take a short, controlled walk if the temperature is not too cold or take them gently in our arms.
The ability to safely (both for the animal and the caregiver) manipulate the animal makes the daily operation of the terrarium easier. It will also come in handy during veterinary checks. Although in the case of species such as leopard gecko or bearded agama it is difficult to talk about any aggression, but there are exceptions and you should keep in mind that any LIVE animal can bite.
There are some differences in the degree to which a reptile can be tamed, so it is always a good idea to choose as your first pet one that you can easily and fearlessly care for. However, it should be noted that terrarium hobby is the art of observing animals that do not particularly care for direct interaction with humans. Let the sight of an exotic animal in perfect condition, which is not afraid of us and eagerly comes towards us during feeding be a sufficient reward.
What does terrarium science give us?
My fascination with reptiles has made the information in magazines, books, and the Internet inadequate. As a primary, then secondary school student, I did not yet know how to search for professional scientific publications, which are usually available in English. In Poland, not many people do research on reptiles and amphibians. You can forget about nutritional studies. Unfortunately there is also no magazine dedicated strictly to terrarium hobby, although there used to be a great DRACO magazine.
So I began to seek contact with these animals instead. First in pet shops, then at terrarium markets and zoos. The commodity exchanges satisfied my interest temporarily, as I was able to see the rarer species with my own eyes. Moreover, I could talk to experienced breeders and learn something new about the animals or about breeding techniques. It was a little worse with zoos.
Apart from not very interesting stock, many of them used archaic methods of reptile and amphibian keeping, and the terrariums did not look very good either. Today the situation has definitely improved. Perhaps this is because in many zoos the animal caretakers and section managers are true enthusiasts, who in addition to work often keep reptiles and amphibians in their own homes. As a result, both at work and at home, they use their specialist knowledge and experience to ensure that the animals develop healthily. What I like most about terrarium hobby is the fact that I can observe behaviors and habits of animals that are normally beyond the reach of average man living in our climate zone.
Purchase of terrarium animals
Here it is worth mentioning the essence of conscious buying of terrarium animals. One of the greatest benefits of terrarium hobby in my opinion is the ability to breed animals which are in danger of extinction. Many people will probably argue that the place of wild animals is in the wild, in their natural environment. It’s hard to disagree with that, which is why a responsible terrarium keeper always purchases animals from a legitimate source.
The vast majority of commercially available animals come from legal farms. Such farms are located in the countries where the species are found and the animals are kept outdoors under natural sunlight. Only the area is fenced and secured to prevent the animals from escaping, and food and water are given by the caretakers.
Breeding by terrarium enthusiasts is the second best source – in my opinion. Usually, animals bred this way are offered at higher prices. Undoubtedly, however, this translates into better condition and acclimatization abilities of the animal. It gives us certainty and peace of mind that none of our animals has been uprooted from its natural environment. It does not suffer the stress of transport and the difficulty of acclimatization to new conditions. Therefore, it does not feel embarrassed and carefully inquire about the origin of the animal you intend to purchase.
For endangered animals listed in the Washington Convention, CITES Appendix I and II (https://www.cites.org/eng) demand documents proving that the animal was born on a farm. Such an animal should then be registered in the appropriate office or district based on the document received.
Summarizing my thoughts I must admit that it is difficult to list all the benefits of having a terrarium at home. Keep in mind that terrariums are not only about live animals but also plants. Nothing stands in the way of setting up a terrarium for tropical plants alone, e.g. orchids, insectivorous plants, tillandsias, mosses or ferns. A piece of nature will certainly enliven any interior, soothe the senses and allow you to discover the smaller and larger mysteries of the world of flora and fauna.
Everything that we have to face before we decide to buy a terrarium animal brings us closer to the world of nature, makes us aware of its protection and increases our knowledge about it. There is a “wild element” in each of us, a remnant of our ancestors. In our artificial environments of concrete, iron and lately more and more often plastic somewhere inside us sprouts the need to be in close contact with nature.
Taking care of an animal that is not completely tame can be really fascinating. Moreover, such a terrarium often becomes an exotic, original decoration of the entire house. I believe that conscious terrarium hobby increases our ecological sensitivity, teaches responsibility and requires at least an attempt to understand the diversity of the world around us and the mechanisms that govern it. Increasing the level of public knowledge about wildlife has a direct and indirect impact on nature conservation and saving many animal species from extinction.
Do not hesitate to try it.