It’s difficult to replicate both the beauty and complexity of a chameleon’s natural habitat, but with a bioactive enclosure, you can come close. Follow along with us as we build a bioactive habitat for one of our Panther Chameleons.
You may be asking yourself, “what does bioactive mean?” If so, please check out our blog post on the basics of bioactive. In short, bioactive, in terms of insect and animal keeping, has come to mean an environment that attempts to replicate a natural ecosystem and life cycle by adding other living organisms. This could be as simple as adding soil, live plants, and an insect “clean up crew,” or as complex as creating a (nearly) self sustaining ecosystem within your enclosure. For our build, we are striving to land somewhere in the middle.
We’ve decided to upgrade all four of our chameleon’s enclosures. Two are bioactive enclosures already, but we will be tearing them down and starting from scratch over the next few months. Up first is our Ambanja Panther Chameleon’s enclosure.
We’ve settled on using a Dragon Strand Large Clearside Atrium for our enclosure. We have another Atrium for our other Panther Chameleon, and it’s a quality cage that looks more like a showcase than a cage. What really sold us on the cage is the “Clearside” material that is used, which is a clear pvc material that gives the clarity and opacity of glass or acrylic, while having a level of flexibility and durability. The only downside to the Dragon Strand is that the shipping costs were expensive, and there is a build schedule for the Clearside models. So if you are interested, plan ahead and check their website to see the latest build schedule.
The Large Atrium model is a great size. It is 45.25″ W x 22.25″ D x 44.25″ H, but we plan to build a stand for the enclosure that will increase the height by a nearly two feet. The additional height added by our custom stand creates a much more usable space, as without it, your 44.25″ tall cage would feel substantially smaller once you add several inches of soil and plants to the base. With the taller setup, we are able to add the soil and plants lower in the cage, which lets us use much larger plants and features. It also helps us to keep the chameleon’s climbing area at the optimal viewing height, while still giving them the security of feeling like they are high off the ground, up in the tree tops.
I wish I could take credit for the idea, but we drew inspiration for the stand from our buddy James. We used James’ enclosure stands as inspiration for our own design, which more closely compliments our home’s other styling and furniture. We’ll also be improving on a few design areas to create a better drainage and misting system. So let’s get started!
First stop – The Home Depot. My husband and I headed off early to pick out the wood we would use for our build. We decided to use 3/4″Birch plywood and trim, which is a little more expensive than pine, but a higher quality wood. The birch has a nice grain to it that will look great whether painted or stained, and the plywood can easily handle the weight of the substrate and plants. To save us the trouble, we had The Home Depot cut a single sheet of plywood into four 2′ x 4′ quarters. We then had one of those cut in half to create two 2′ x 2′ panels. The left us with two 2′ x 4′ front and back panels, one 2′ x 4′ floor panel, and two 2′ x 2′ side panels. There is no cost to have Home Depot cut the wood for you, and it definitely makes transporting the materials and the clean up that much easier. In the end, we needed to trim about 1/4″ off the side panels with our table saw in order to get a snug, recessed fit. If you don’t have your own saw, just double or even triple check your measurements and have Home Depot do the work for you.
We carefully applied wood glue and fastened each panel, one by one, using a Paslode nail gun. The nail gun made quick work of the job, and before we knew it, we built ourselves a box! Don’t worry too much if your panels seem slightly out of square during assembly. Once the sides were fastened in place it trued the whole thing up. A metal squaring tool is a useful gadget that will help you determine if your corners are tight 90 degree angles.
The Paslode gun does a great job, but the nails are thin and recessed, so we wanted a little more bite and reinforcement around the edges of the box. We used a countersink bit to create and add a screw every 6″ along the edges of the box. Why bother measuring it out? It not only makes the job tidier and less wasteful, but it is much easier to apply the trim when you know where your screws and nails are. Shooting a Paslode nail into a hidden screw head is going to make a mess of your wood, or your finger. That statement comes from experience!
Next, John started cutting 1″ x 3″ Birchwood trim on his compound mitre saw. He carefully measured and marked up his corner mitre cuts on the top trim , in order to get the tightest corners possible. We then used the Paslode gun to attach the trim pieces, paying attention to where the screws were located underneath. Once the top was in place, John framed the front and rear sides of the box with 1″ x 3″ trim, with 1″ overhanging on the corners. This overhang will be used to make the trim look proportionately sized from all angles. He also had the side pieces of trim extend down beyond the box to create part of the legs.
Once all sides were trimmed out, we moved on to the legs and bottom of the box. We added smaller trim pieces to the bottom of the enclosure to make the legs look like a solid 4×4″ box. We then cut pieces of trim that would run along the bottom edge of the box, adding a bit more support and tying the trim together.
Next we moved on to the interior. We’re using a pond liner as the main water barrier for our enclosure. This will help the water and mist to run down into the soil, and allow the excess to drain out with out ruining the wood in the process. One of the issues our buddy James ran into was condensation, which formed on the outside of his pond liner and caused some water damage on the bottom of his stand. To combat that, and because we are super paranoid, we added some additional water barriers before adding the pond liner. We used some leftover thin, rigid foam insulation and lined all sides of the interior and used HVAC tape to secure it all in place. The insulation will keep the condensation from coming into contact with the wood on the sides, but that wasn’t enough in our minds, so we also added Dragon Strand’s substrate tray to the bottom of the enclosure. In hindsight, we could have made this ourselves, and if we had, it would have been better fitting and much cheaper. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great addition if you aren’t creating a stand, and just need a substrate tray to slide into the bottom of the Atrium enclosure, but a custom tray would have worked better for our purposes.
The substrate tray was slightly smaller than our stand, so we shoved some foam around the sides to hold it snugly in place. We then used a hole saw bit to cut a hole through the tray, foam, and wooden floor. We purchased a plumbing pipe that had a small lip on it and used that as our drain pipe. Without it, water draining from the bottom could get between the barriers and damage the wood. In order to get a nice, flush fit, my husband first cut the correct size hole, and then used a slightly larger bit to create a countersink for the lip so that the lip sits completely flush with the bottom. There’s still a chance for water to seep through, so we added HVAC tape to the inside of the whole, sealing off the layers before adding the pipe. Once the pipe was seated, we used black silicone to bead and seal the lip and countersunk area of the drainage pipe. Theoretically, the entire substrate tray and drain should now be water tight… but you probably have learned by now that we are super anal and tend to overbuild!
Next we added our pond liner. I screwed up here and used a piece of the liner for another cage. I miscalculated and we were left 2-3″ short of the ideal length of the liner. This created a little more slope to the sides than we planed, but not enough to delay the build and order another liner. We carefully laid out the liner and stapled one side in place, and then then the other side panel. Once the sides were secured we neatly folded the corners to create “hospital corners” before stapling the liner to the front and back panels. We sliced an X into the liner where our drain was, and being the paranoid fools that we are, we decided that wasn’t enough and added a second, identical drain pipe to the hole. The pipe was pretty thin and we were able to cut the pipe in order to allow it to curl in on itself to make a smaller pipe. We slid that into the X we cut, sandwiching the pond liner between the two drain pipes, and we again applied silicone for a good seal. While the silicone was wet, I added a small piece of mesh, and pressed it into the silicone, in order to create a barrier so that our drainage media doesn’t drain out with the water.
While the silicone dried, we cut 1″ square PVC pieces that were to be used to create a lip at the top of the liner, which the Dragon Strand itself would sit on. You see, our stand is slightly wider than the Dragon Strand, so this will allow us to mount the stand but still leave enough space for a trim cap going around the stand. We miss calculated and actually needed to double this up in order to secure the cage. The PVC dowels went over top of the top edge of the liner, hiding the staples from view. We spray painted them black and attached them with screws. We weren’t super concerned with the structural strength of these PVC lips, as the Dragon Strand itself is relatively lightweight, and we knew that any branches we would be adding would be mostly supported by vertical branches that reached all the way down to the soil, meaning that the stand was supporting the weight of the branches and not the Dragon Strand. The Dragon Strand ledges are designed to support the weight of the branches, but we are using some heavier branches and the vertical branches add some realism, as well.
Now it was time to build the actual enclosure. Dragon Strand shipped the enclosure in two, well packed boxes. We carefully laid out the pieces, so as to not bump, poke, or in anyway put pressure on the Clearside material. The directions for the enclosure are pretty straight forward, and the hardest part is assembling the Dragon Ledges. These require two sets of hands and a small prayer, as you are about to poke a few holes in that beautiful new cage to mount them! No big deal, just measure twice (or three or four times) before committing to the holes.
The doors to our enclosure came with creases in them, which must have slipped past QA or occurred during packing, as there was no damage to the boxes. I contacted Bill Strand and he was very quick to fix the issue and get new doors out to me, allowing me to use the damaged doors in the meantime.
It took about an hour to assemble the Dragon Strand Atrium, again, with most of the time being spent triple checking and installing the ledges. This cage is gorgeous! The final step in this part of the build is securing the cage to the stand. Our plan is to install a small piece of 2″ trim around the perimeter of the cage, creating a small, decorative lip at the top of the stand. We haven’t added that piece yet, so in the meantime, we added two screws to the front and back of the enclosure, securing it to the lip of the stand. These screws aren’t very visible, but they help keep the lightweight sides in place.
All in, we spent around $250-300 on the stand materials (not including finish, which we have not yet decided on). We spent around $830 for the enclosure and tray, including shipping. This wasn’t a small pill to swallow, but when finished, the chameleon enclosures look like a beautiful piece of furniture that really makes a statement in our living room. Next up, in Part Three of our build, we will be adding our branches, plants, clean up crew, and lighting to the cage! Check back for the next blog entry about it.