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March 01, 2013

Glass life

Create your own Pandora in your living room

Pepper Rodriguez

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James Cameron needed something like $280 million to bring the lush ecosystem of Pandora alive in his movie “Avatar,” but you can create your own living world in the comfort of your own living room — and you don’t need such an outlandish budget.

The world of terrariums and vivariums has exploded over the last few years, with new enthusiasts discovering the joys of creating basically your own mini-ecosystem. Best of all you can create these fanciful, elaborate glass-encased worlds almost anywhere, even in a condo or townhome with limited space.

Much as an aquarium is a showcase for your fish, a terrarium is essentially the living quarters for your reptilian, or amphibious pets. A vivarium is likewise a display case for flora as well.

The word “terrarium” is derived from the Latin word “terra” meaning “earth,” while “vive” for vivarium is Latin for “life.”  Greg West of Cornels World, a Calgary-based custom-terrarium maker, defines terrariums as a glass enclosure that would house animals — usually reptiles and amphibians — with everything they need including heat, light, and substrate (soil, sand, rocks, etc.). While vivariums are more complex undertakings that is set up to replicate a more natural environment where you grow live plants, and have things like hides, ledges, running water, and waterfalls.

“Most of the time reptile and amphibian keepers will keep both plants and animals in a terrarium/vivarium together making it somewhat difficult to really rule out the complete differences between the two. But when you really come down to it, a vivarium is something that would be set up in a way to replicate a more natural environment for your animals,” he says.

Allen Abbot of NewLife Enclosures — a local supplier of ABS racks and enclosures — says terrariums and vivariums are both easy to care for, although there is a slight difference between the two.

“With a terrarium the most of your maintenance will be of the basic need of cleaning your reptile or amphibians’ living area. Such as bedding, waste, leftover foods, and fresh water and feeding, also water changes when keeping aquatic animals such as turtles,” he says.

A vivarium would involve a bit more work, you would have to have more equipment such as an automatic misting system, as well as a manual one to mist/water your foliage, and also equipment to prune your plants, Abbot adds.

An important aspect is the heating of the enclosures, as both reptiles and plants need a fair amount to survive and keeping them in room temperature is likely not enough to sustain them.

Heat lamps, UV or infrared lamps are essential and can be set on timers. Humidifiers are needed as well, and depending on the animals or plants you have in your enclosure, some need as  much as 90 per cent humidity to survive.

Despite this, West says reptiles as pets have become more popular now, as they are still pretty low maintenance — no need to take them out for walks. “Also they are hypoallergenic, so for people who can’t have cats or dogs, this gives them another option.”

There are some concerns, because reptiles do carry salmonella. But Abbot believes that keeping the enclosure clean and washing your hands thoroughly after handling your pets will prevent any contamination.

Terrariums range widely in price depending on the size, shape, and additional items within the cage. “A terrarium could be based upon a simple 20 gallon aquarium and then set up for the requirements of the animal,” West says.  “I have done enclosures ranging from $60 all the way to $5,000 plus.  The cost of the terrarium is relative to your imagination, and how much you want to spend on creating you and your reptile’s paradise.”

For the price of reptiles and amphibians themselves, Abbot says they can go from $5 to as much as $500,000! “There are many extremely rare animals out there that are very limited and pricing gets up there. But there are many available for the beginner — dart frogs, all kinds of lizards and snakes — all the way up to the advanced breeder or hobbyists.” Buyers have to keep in mind, though, that Canada has some strict laws against the importation of endangered species.

Both West and Abbot caution that anyone thinking of bringing in a new pet — regardless if it’s a dog or amphibian or reptile — has to do their research first and know all they can know about the particular species they are buying.

“Understand EVERYTHING about your choice of reptile,” Abbot says. “You can’t just look at the price tag and the look at its face and say ‘wow, this will look great in our living room!’ Remember to ask yourself if you’re ready to feed bugs or rodents live or dead? Or are you ready to dedicate the space and time to keep this animal for the lifespan of the specific reptile? Are you capable of supplying all the required equipment such as heat bulbs, UV bulbs, and misters?”

Most pet stores carry reptiles and amphibians as well as the supplies. But there are two reptiles-only shows in Calgary where enthusiasts can get their supplies. The bi-annual shows — organized by the Alberta Reptile and Amphibian Society —  is becoming more popular. “We typically see 2,000-plus people through the doors at each show,” West says. There are similar shows held in Red Deer and Edmonton, too, he adds.

“Just about anyone young or elderly, single or families, any culture there is a market out there for all areas and I see this always continuing to have growth through the years, as since I was a child in the hobby it has come an extremely long way!” Abbot says.

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