About three years ago, I got a text from a friend who knew I had kept reptiles in the past. I used to have two snakes, and she has been pet sitting for me for years. She had a friend that needed to find a new home for a snake and a Bearded Dragon. Was I interested in either?
I definitely knew I did not want another snake. I like snakes, I think they are really interesting creatures, but I can’t stand feeding them. I didn’t really know anything about Bearded Dragons, so I told her I needed to think about it.
Dexter the Ball Python
Time to research! Bearded dragons are omnivores, so they need veggies and bugs. I can deal with that. I don’t love feeding bugs, but I won’t have any more pets that need to eat other pets (mice, rats, etc.) This particular dragon came with a tank, lights, pretty much everything I would need. Why not?!?
When I started researching, it seemed that many people believed bearded dragons shouldn’t be housed on a loose substrate, so no sand, dirt, etc. I lined my tank with some plastic shelf liner that had a little bit of texture to give my lizard some grip. The reasoning was that lizards could eat the substrate and it would cause a bowel impaction.
For over two years, I kept her on the shelf liner, she had hammocks to bask in, branches to climb, caves to hide in. Eventually, the shelf liner started to wear out, and I started researching again. Should I just replace the shelf liner? It is easy to keep clean, inexpensive, easy to replace. I started thinking it would be really nice if Wena could have some real plants instead of the fake ones I had in her tank. I researched lizard safe plants.
I came across some websites, particularly Josh’s Frogs, and The BioDude, that had articles about bioactive enclosures. More info was definitely needed! This seemed like such an amazing idea to me. My lizard could essentially live in a terrarium, live plants, bugs to live in the soil and keep the tank clean naturally!
The research told me I needed a mix of soils, sands, etc. that would help maintain the right humidity, and allow the cleaning crew insects to thrive and do their job. Josh’s Frogs offered a mix ready to use, so I purchased a bunch of that. More reading to learn what plants were safe. I found that many of the succulents I already had would be perfect for the tank, so I used a bunch of what I had and bought just a couple of bigger plants to fill in.
This is Wena’s tank today. It’s a work in progress. She has killed many plants by eating or crushing them, so I’m still replanting, and trying to figure out what works best, but here’s the thing… I LOVE this tank! It’s nice to look at now. I enjoy seeing all the plants instead of the ugly plastic tank.
It’s SUPER easy to take care of. There are springtails and isopods living in the soil. I almost never see them, but they clean up lizard poop, leftover dragon food, and decaying plant matter. Bearded Dragon poop smells awful. It is enough to stink up the entire room, but now, it just gets buried in the soil and the bugs take care of it. For maintenance, I spray the tank down with a mist of water every morning when I feed Wena. I’m sure in a few months I’ll want to do a deep clean, maybe change out the substrate, or at least some of it, but that’s it.
Here’s the best part of all, Wena is a totally different creature. She used to scratch at the glass of her tank when she saw me. I thought it was cute that she wanted attention, but in hindsight, I think she was bored and restless. Since switching to the bioactive tank, she eats better, she poops more regularly, she climbs, and digs, and eats some of the live plants in her tank. She hunts for bugs. She no longer taps on the glass. Sometimes when I look at the tank, it takes me a minute to figure out where she is. She has choices. Wena no longer basks in the same spot all day, every day.
I love having pets, but I do sometimes worry about them being in captivity. I think about poor Hector who never really learned how to fly. I always do what I can to enrich my pets lives and keep them mentally stimulated. I truly believe that my dragon is happier and living more naturally now. She’s more relaxed. She doesn’t just sit in the same spot all day. She made herself a nice bed of dry leaves where she sometimes naps. She has branches to climb and leaves to nibble.
Back to the reason for this article, always be learning. Three years ago when I set up the dragon tank, I thought it was the best thing for her. I didn’t want to risk impaction with a loose substrate. Now, I’ve read more. I’ve learned that with the right lighting and diet, there really isn’t a risk from the substrate. I’ve seen how happy my girl is to be digging, foraging, nibbling live plants, climbing, basking, all these natural activities are now available to her. It’s amazing to see the change. Part of being a responsible pet owner is being willing to learn, grow, and change. Take care of your pets physically and mentally. Enjoy them!