My Vivarium


I thought I would give myself a couple weeks before writing about this small lizard again, because it's still hiding out as much as possible and I'm still giving it time to get accustomed to its new zone. The small lizard forums say to give them at least 2 weeks before you try to pick them up, and I feel like I can't give it a name until I can pick it up. Quite frankly there's not much going on with the lizard itself, we're in a holding pattern. While it gets used to me it's just hiding under an egg carton in a tupperware shoebox. Well, like I said I thought I'd give myself a couple weeks, but I'm not really going to, I can't resist. Right now I'm building out a proper vivarium for the guy, and it's pretty fun, so that's the topic on this one.

I'll try not to bore you with the details, although if you like being bored with details (I do sometimes), I'll leave links below to videos on the subject that are calm, methodical, caring, and dull. I'll just note some features and move on. Also I promise I won't talk about the lizard every time from now on.


To do it the way I'm doing it, as a true vivarium and not just "a tank", you need bugs. You need a good drainage layer, a healthy soil layer on top of that, plants growing in the soil, and the lizard just cruising around above, in the plants and on the branches. But what keeps the whole thing going is bugs, turning the lizard's waste into plant food, out-competing other pests that might be harmful, and just bumbling around happily in the undergrowth. People on the forums refer to bugs as "the clean-up crew", which is so so so so so cute. The most popular clean up crew for a gargoyle gecko (that's what I have) is isopods and springtails. The springtails are pretty nondescript- they're super tiny and jump around like popping popcorn, but mostly stay underground and unseen, munching on mold and bacteria and things of that nature. The isopods, which I always called pill bugs or roly polys (though not all species pill or roll up) are cuter, they're like tiny little vans that drive around to wherever the poop is, and munch on that, plus dried leaves, and if you really want them to go nuts, a little bit of sweet potato now and then, or a fine dusting of nutritional yeast. I'm also going to add some earthworms to the scene, with the understanding that they help aerate the soil, giving the rest of the clean up crew better access to the underlayer.

I ordered the springtails and isopods from a supplier in Connecticut-- getting a live animal in the mail is crazy but I think these guys will be ok, it's not far and they're going express. There's a million kinds of isopods and yes, I know that there are a ton just outside my house right now under any given rotting log, but I think those guys are big enough and with a thick enough New England shell that they could hurt my lizard if it tries to munch one. The ones I ordered are small and soft-- munching on the occasional stray is gonna be no problemo.

Of course there's a healthy scene for people to keep just the isopods as pets, and since they're an extremely successful animal (I mean globally) there are tons of different kinds, some of which are quite striking! Look at these guys, who I found on an isopod breeder's site: image

I know some of you are like, "bugs, gross" but come on, look at these little Miyazakis, they're great. If you can't see yourself watching these guys closely as they bumble around in the underbrush, that tells me just one thing: most likely you have never been super duper high.

Great Stuff

OK this seems crazy but the common way you build a realistic vivarium backdrop is to use Great Stuff, or any expanding foam product. Do you ever use this shit? I love it. You get it in a spray can and it squirts out as an extremely sticky butter-colored goo. In an hour or so it plumps up to double its initial volume, or more, and it cures to a rigid consistency completely overnight, strong enough that you can't put your finger through it but not so much to resist a sharpened pencil. In cured form it's glossy and bulbous, and looks like some kind of fungus. Tapping on it produces a sound like a very stale loaf of artisinal bread, which makes sense since both are made of open-celled foam constrained by a rigid air-cured skin.


here's how it looks when you use it as intended

For the vivarium, you spray some lumps right on to the walls, and while you're at it, use the Great Stuff to glue in other landscape features, like cork bark or branches or Hot Wheels cars or whatever. Let it dry, then cover it in 100% silicone, and before that dries, firmly press a dry soil mixture (coco fiber, dried sphagnum moss) into it. In the end you should have some blobby and climbable structures that creeping plants can cling to, with the look and feel of "part of a tree".

I'm not at the silicone part yet-- I did the lumps yesterday and had to let it sit overnight. Currently it's just blobs of great stuff squeaking out from between wooden pieces, and it looks a lot like when I used to live in the mills. The main, big room at the mill was cold uninsulated brick and our bedrooms were little cabins we built out of scrap lumber, protected from needle-sharp drafts with hardened globs of Great Stuff. Later I caught the same look (though applied to a surface, not a crack, and with gusto, not finesse) in the background of Annihilation (2018) :


When I lived at the mill I didn't think to paint the blobs in pastels like this, I just kept them butter colored. But next time I plug up a draft I'm probably going to go pastel, it's a cool look. :)

I think I love Great Stuff because it's like a very utilitarian use of a 1970s hippie space architecture idea-- an extruded polymer that puffs out in pseudo-organic forms, that you can coil up and make larger forms with, or spray on the inside of a box to make it look like a cool freaky cave. I guess the actualized human-sized version of this idea is to use spray concrete, but you need a whole truck for that-- Great Stuff is like, the dollhouse version.

image image
I think the skin is the thinnest at the top of the bubble, because of gravity, so when the inside goo is still expanding, that's where it breaks through to start a new little bubble, at the top. So it sort of drips up, like a Muscovite cathedral? I love it.

I bet if I was able to read Thousand Plateaus I'd have like, a really good riff about this Stuff, but to be honest I simply don't find it enjoyable. So I'll just say "Wow, I love it!". Blob fans check it out.


The gargoyle gecko is arboreal so you're gonna want to add lots of climbing shit for it to fuck around on. I used sticks. Everyone in the videos I watched uses special branches from the pet store but I just used some regular sticks from the Weird Area next to my house and baked them in the oven for an hour to kill off any bad stuff that might be in there, hopefully that's ok. Generally I'm trying to just do whatever the vivarium viveo people say, just to try and limit the variables in this experiment, but I'm not paying $40 for a stick, come on. I really think it's fine, and the only reason the video people don't do it is like, they're mostly catering to people that want to spend money as a demonstration of care. Which, like, I understand. But I think it's fine. If not I'll just take the stick out. That's life baby.


The plants in the vivarium are real plants, not fake plants-- the root of the word vivarium is "viva" which means like "hey, alright!", or "bursting with flavor!" or just "life!". Hopefully the plants do alright when I put them in, that part is still two steps away right now. But I got the plants already, they're right here, I'm looking at them.

Up to now most of the plants I take care of around the house have been succulents, because the shapes are fun, they thrive on neglect, and they regrow from very small pieces which you can find, for instance, on the floor at the greenhouse, and which you can, for argument's sake, just put in your pocket when, for all intents and purposes, no one is looking. Something about succulents is that most of them want to be right there in the sun, which makes it easy-- you know where to put them: the window. For this vivarium I needed plants that grow well (but not fast) in warm humid conditions without a lot of sunlight and with a small lizard walking over them. So I went to the greenhouse and keyed in on anything marked "indestructable", looking for big sturdy leaves I could imagine really wedging myself under or between for a day-long nap (if I was that big).

I wanted to get a philodendron, because I remembered that visionary architect Paul Laffoley was obsessed with philodendrons, but a gecko web page told me there's a toxicity problem with some kinds of philodendron, so I went with a similarly tuff and ubiquitous pothos. For the rest I got a snake plant, an aglaonema, and some little ground cover guys. Once the tank is set up and everything's planted, I have to let it settle in for a month or two, time for the plants to root well and for the clean-up crew to get comfortable and for the first wave of bacteria to bloom up and then get nibbled back. Also the lizard still has to chunk up a little before the move in.

Stupid stuff

Yes, I'm putting some stupid stuff in the vivarium. I don't want to overwhelm the place with tchochkies but I'll probably hot glue a few gems in there and also one (but not both) of these tiny buildings (each 1.5" tall) :

image image
I'm leaning towards the bungalow. It's way too small to for the lizard but I imagine the pill bugs will get in there and fuck around. Mostly I plan on thinking of this little building as a place I can go and hang out and sip a cup of tea. Obviously I can't really go in there, I'm not a half inch tall. Anyway that's my plan of how to think of it, as an aid to the imagination. Scaling the entire enclosure up to my size, with the bungalow as the reference, I think the pill bugs would be the size of a golden retriever. That's a little upsetting, but considering they only eat decaying plant matter, I think I'm OK with that. Also if I was really that tiny, I probably couldn't sip a cup of tea-- I think the surface tension on the tea would limit my ability to sip it from a mug scaled down that small. I think I would have to soak a tiny tiny piece of cookie in the tea and then eat that. Again, it's not ideal but I'm ok with that.


It's not lost on me that I've been extremely inside all year and now I'm trying to make an optimal living room space pod for this small lizard to groove in. As I read through the care requirements for this guy, it's impossible not to see myself: we both need time to hide periodically and space to climb; we both enjoy a thick meal made of powdered fruit and some bugs. At first I was disappointed at what a narrow temperature window I have to give this guy, basically you have to keep temps pinned in the mid-70s all the time. I mean to me that's unreasonable-- at my house I just put on a sweater, that's how I was raised. But then I got to thinking that I'm not so tough, really, and everything I've ever known takes place in an extreme goldilocks zone-- not only in regard to temps but lots of stuff-- absence of space radiation, access to liquid water, having a huge planet nearby to attract stray comets, not too far from the sun, not too close... I mean when you compare me needing a regular conversation to remain sane and this guy needing near-constant temps in the mid 70s, the lizard comes out as far more robust.

Regarding the vivarium, obviously I wish my house was sick like this, and to be honest, working on this project has me eager to set up a better enclosure for myself. The downside is that I'm searching like "cute house under $3,000", which is both unrealistic and bad for morale. But the upside is that I'm working with what I have-- moving things around, making things flow a little better, setting up more helpful systems... I might hot glue some gems around here too. If anyone wants to hook me up with a cute lil house to trick out I would certainly consider it but for now I'm still giving it a go in an apartment-type setting.

Oh, and also in re: the vivarium, everything that applies to the lizard applies here too-- the vivarium has needs and requirements, and it's basically also "a pet", despite being also "an environment". Any way you want to look at it, I'm confident that I can get both these guys what they need. I can get them what they need, I can get me what I need, we can both hurtle through space together. The lizard, the tank, me, my house, The castle, the pond, the drug store, New Scotland Of The Mind, etc..

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other posts you may enjoy (chosen at random) :
Phone Book
Part 1
Poster Sale