|They're hunting us.|
Many nights before falling asleep I would stare over at my turtle's enclosure and long for something better. Hours of thought were spent trying to come up with a more suitable design. Something automated, cleaner and easier to maintain. This is my 4th, and perhaps not the final, attempt at creating just that.
|Up to date photo for your convenience|
In the summer of 2012, I was driving with my dad down the road from the house where my grandparents had lived in southern Indiana. On the road in front of us, I saw a turtle in front of our truck. I yelled for him to stop before he ran it over. Luckily he stopped in time and the turtle was fine. After getting out and grabbing the turtle, I took it back to the truck to show him. He knew right away that this was a terrapin. All I knew was that it was indeed a turtle. He asked if I was going to keep it, and honestly, the thought hadn't even occurred to me. I thought for a second and decided yeah, why not. That moment after I decided to keep the turtle, it peed on me. So naturally I named my new turtle Squirtle, after the Pokemon. I set her into an old Jimmy Johns 6 gallon pickle bucket, and we went on our way.
Later I learned that Squirtle is a female common box turtle of the species Terrapene Carolina. Knowing what I know now, I should have helped that turtle across the road and went about my life. The Terrapene c. carolina is a protected subspecies of the common box turtle classified as a vulnerable species. Their numbers are dwindling in part from urban development and the international pet trade. The common box turtle is listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Removing this species from its natural habitat is now prohibited in many states. By the time I learned this, it was too late. I had her in captivity long enough that reintroducing her to the wild would likely be detrimental to her and the other creatures. So I had two options: take her to a wildlife center that would possibly care for her or do my best to take care of her myself. I have been choosing the latter ever since.
I learned quickly that these turtles are quite the escape artists. I had removed her from the bucket and temporarily placed her outside, into a whiskey barrel that had long been used as a planter. The soil in the planter had to have been at least a foot and a half deep into the barrel. I thought surely she wouldn't get out. After coming back outside around an hour later, I discovered she escaped from the barrel. I was so hard pressed to believe she could climb out that I asked around to see if my relatives took her out. I figured if she did get out, she probably crawled over to the trees and foliage alongside the sound barrier for the interstate. I found her after about 3 minutes. Afterward, I placed her back into the barrel and sat back and watched her escape. I was amazed to see her find her footing and pull herself up and out of the barrel. After landing on the back of her shell, she looked hopeless and in need of assistance. But no, she used her head and rolled herself back and forth before finally righting herself up and continuing on back to the foliage.
Thinking back, one of my first assumptions on the turtle's whereabouts should have been birds of prey. Owls and hawks will often swoop down and grab them if presented with the opportunity. These turtles don't have the best eyesight and are as slow as a turtle, so they aren't well suited for escape. So this species is one of the few that evolved to be able to pull themselves into their shell and close the lid completely. A bird or animal is going to have a hard time trying to pry these things apart. Unfortunately for our turtle friends, they still have one weakness: gravity. Large birds have learned of this weakness and exploited it by carrying the closed turtle high into the air and dropping it over the hard, dense rock.
|The only picture I have of the plywood habitat|
I found some communities online for terrariums, vivariums, and paludariums and started on my own. I picked up an Exo-Terra 36x18x18 tank with the capacity for about 11 gallons of water at the base, and 2 hinged glass doors on the front. I made a land mass out of rock and soil on the left side of the tank and a slope into a filtered pond on the right. I planted moss and ground cover into the soil, placed leaf litter around her hideaway and had a new light fixture on the top with bulbs that would mimic night and day. In the water I had some blue LED lighting that looked pretty neat from the outside. The worms that would escape her dinner thrived just under the soil and procreated, giving the turtle a chance to hunt for protein at her heart's content. She enjoyed the water much better than the poop bowl she had before. And now that she had a light, she would climb on the top of her hideaway and bask for hours.
Creating the mold for the cast was a very tricky thing to think about. I basically had to attach material everywhere I didn't want cement and leave negative space everywhere I did want it. On top of that I had to be able to pour my cement mixture into everywhere I needed it. So the mold had to be assembled in multiple pieces during the pouring process.
|Makeshift hot knife using nichrome wire|
|Foam supports for the top piece|
|Anywhere I wanted empty space needed to have foam|
|Chicken wire to help support the floor/ceiling|
I wasn't sure how necessary it would be, but I used chicken wire to help support the cement surface that would bear the weight of the dirt and rock on top, kind of like rebar. The following foam pieces were glued to where the cement platform would be in order to create access points for various additions or maintenance: four 3" x 4" holes at the corners and one 5" x 5" hole in the center. The center hole will chute up and beyond the dirt level for easy access at anytime to the water below. Later, it will be covered with rock.
|Only 1 chance to get it right or I have to make it all over|
Because the cement structure had walls and a floor, but I only had 1 pour to create the structure, I had to make an additional part of the mold that would hold the liquid cement down, which would allow the walls to rise to the top. Before pouring, I laid everything out in the order it needed to go back into the frame while pouring.
I didn't get a chance to make a video or take any pictures during the actual pour and mixing. The cement formula I used was 1 part water : 2 parts cement : 4 parts play sand. I actually ran out and had to mix more about halfway through. I tried to get the consistency the same but, as you will see further down, the difference is visible.
|Access holes in the ceiling for future peripherals.|
The white/grey concrete look was rather boring. I carved two sides to make it look like stacked rock or maybe something ancient that had long been forgotten. I started carving it by hand using a pick and file, but quickly resorted to a rotary tool and engraving bit. It took several bits and hours to carve two sides and the insides of the arches. I decided not to do the back and left side considering it would never be seen. My hand hurt pretty bad by the time I was finished. In the picture on the top left, you can see I cracked one of the legs. In actuality, I cracked 3 legs. I should have used supports for more than just the floor/ceiling. Luckily I was able to disguise the crack somewhat as part of the rock face later on.
|Painted using acrylic paints and a brush|
|Moved a wall to give turtle more clearance|
|Had to shave material off threshold to fit structure in place|
I decided to throw away the old foam backboard that was in her tank. It was slightly discolored, broken, and I wanted something on all three sides, not just the back. I also needed to build steps leading to the top ground area. I made all these items from foam. I've come to really love pink insulation foam as a material. It is easy to cut and carve, and texture can be added quickly using any of the various techniques I've learned so far using this stuff.
I cut foam to fit in place on the sides and back of the tank and made sure to leave space in the corners and top for any tubing or wire that needed to be hidden. The steps serve a dual purpose: one being a filter and housing for the waterfall pump, and the other being, well, just steps.
I wanted to go for a natural layered rock look for the walls. I didn't really get exactly what I was going for, but in the end, I think it worked out.
Each of these "rocks" had to be cut out with the hot knife and shaped by hand with 60 grit sandpaper. It took longer to finish the walls than the concrete structure. I think each rock took about 3 minutes, not including texturing and painting.
I designed the walls and steps to be removable for cleaning and maintenance. The pieces are keyed to each other and lock each other in place. They also hold the steps down and prevent them from floating to the top.
|Tank with walls removed|
|Steps go first|
|Wall piece keyed to the shape of the steps|
|The back slides behind the steps|
|The top right side locks over the bottom|
|The left side and waterfall slide into place last|
Once everything is together, there are very few things that indicated that the walls are even separate pieces. A little light comes in from some of the corner,s but I can mask that off later with something on the outside of the glass.
|Testing the fogger and waterfall|
I gave the foam extra texture with a nylon wire brush and pressed a lava rock into the foam.
Like the cement structure, I painted everything black and then used acrylic tans, browns, greens and reds to detail and accent the rock.
|Timer for day/night cycle|
|The hideaway fit right over the walls by chance|
|Squirtle exploring her new digs|
|Look of approval|
Worms aren't the only protein she has to chose from either. In the lower portion of the tank live Rosy Red Minnows native to her wild habitat. If she pleases, she can go fishing and catch a snack. I haven't decided whether or not I want to let any crickets have a permanent residence in the tank. I like to research the various things I allow to live in her tank. I find out what they eat, what their bioload will be, and see what effects they might have on other species in the tank. A stable ecosystem can easily be desolated if the wrong species is introduced.
Did I mention she is an escape artist? Some people questioned my steps, thinking they were too steep for the turtle to climb. The first thing she did after I placed her inside was check the walls and corners for weakness, like raptors at an electric fence. Turtlesaurus. Terrapinasaurus. Jurassic Turtle. I could go on. I should make her a travel habitat that looks like the velociraptor enclosure.
|Hard to get a good picture with the lights on.|