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The Outdoor Terrarium

By: Frank Indiviglio

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Reptiles and amphibians can do well in an outdoor terrarium, and you can get to observe them closely in a habitat that's more natural than life indoors. But to succeed you have to use special care in creating a safe and healthy environment for your pet.

Watching an animal catch its prey, or mate and brood its young in the wild, are events that frequently elude even dedicated herpetologists. But they can be common events for pet owners who allow their reptiles and amphibians to experience normal seasonal cycles. What you observe and enjoy may even inspire an interest in further field research and observation.

Extra space, often more readily available outdoors, can contribute to the overall health of a reptile or amphibian and can be vital for reproduction in nearly any species you decide to keep. It can help, for example, in breeding large aquatic frogs such as American bullfrogs, large aquatic turtles such as Florida softshells and medium-sized monitor lizards.

Small Space Needed for Terrarium

You can create such a terrarium in an area as small as 4 feet by 4 feet as long as it has a supply of fresh water. The terrarium itself may be constructed of any number of materials, from weatherproof wooden posts with chicken wire to concrete or fiberglass enclosures. A 4-by-4 foot enclosure will be large enough to keep five or six medium-sized frogs or turtles.

To create natural diversity, you can include small ponds (great for keeping salamanders such as mudpuppies and sirens) in your terrarium. Pond shops have all sizes and shapes along with ways to filter the water. Flowering plants, piles of rotting wood, dead leaves and bits of fruit and meat will attract a wide variety of insects for your animals to feed on. You can also "seed" enclosures with millipedes, snails, and other invertebrates that will reappear and provide unique hunting opportunities for your pets. Beyond this you may find that little additional food is required.

Space Can Make Reptiles Territorial

One drawback: Behaving naturally for many species means being secretive. While some become bolder, others become difficult to approach after a time "in the wild." Territorial aggression may also crop up in animals suddenly given space to claim as their own. Even relatively sociable animals in cages and aquariums, such as Cuban crocodiles, American bullfrogs or snapping turtles, can become highly territorial in the open.

You can address these problems by keeping an eye on your pets – as you must under all circumstance – to check their physical appearance for signs of health problems. This will not be as easy as peering into a tank in your den. You'll need to set up lookout stations around the site from which you can observe your pet's physical appearance and behavior unobtrusively.

Elevated stations (platforms in trees are sure to puzzle or amuse your neighbors) will allow you to observe your pet's daily activities and condition, although you still may want to do regular weighings to ascertain that your pet is thriving. For nocturnal viewing, you can install a special red light (available through reptile supply companies) that is invisible to your pets. Indirect lighting with a regular incandescent bulb also works for some species. Depending upon your level of interest (or mania), you may even wish to consider night vision glasses.

Location is Important

Terrarium location is important for providing the proper balance of shade and sunlight. Under the best circumstances, the animals will have access to morning sun and available water and shade for cooling off in the heat of the afternoon.

How you keep the animals inside from getting out depends upon the animal. A bullfrog can jump 6 feet in the air, but if the enclosure contains a small pond the frogs will usually remain where they are. Turtles can scale low walls but an overhang will keep them in. Sinking the enclosure fencing a bit below the surface will keep animals from digging their way out.

Keeping unwanted predators out is another problem. Raccoons and even coyotes now often live in urban and suburban areas. And while most dogs can't scale fences, cats can, so providing a cover for a containment of sensitive animals will be important. Even songbirds can be tenacious little hunters of small reptiles and amphibians.

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