After deciding to take break from breeding in the summer of 2008, I decided to put all of the free time to good use and build a new display cage for my dragon room. I wanted to test out some ideas I'd had for vivarium control systems (more about that later) and general design ideas.
A lot of the design /
construction principles are the same as the ones I use for large rodent
cages - more details can be seen on this thread on
Reptile Forums UK.
Overall, the cage itself is just over 5' x 2' x 2'; the actual unit is quite a bit larger than this because of the shelves underneath - it's almost 6' total height.
First up I built the frame for the cage. It's a pretty standard design, with two skins top, bottom and sides, and a single skin at the back. The front will eventually be covered with the same decorative cladding that will form the outer skin of the sides (not yet assembled). This is the unit just as I'm starting the wiring:
One of the ideas I
wanted to test was a ventilation system. This will be linked to a
thermostat, with the idea being that if the cage gets too hot the system
dumps all of the hot air out the cage, thus cooling it. As the cage will
be lit by an MVB (which can't be controlled by a thermostat in the
conventional manner), I wanted to try out an alternative heat regulation
system. It also means that the temperature of the cage will track room
temperature - it will be warmer in summer and cooler in winter, whilst
still being safe and providing a cool end to retreat to if needed. As
well as being linked to a stat, the fan also has a timer override, so it
will come on a few times each day for a couple of minutes to freshen the
cage up and get a bit of a breeze passing through.
As well as a couple of 75mm vents that go straight out of the cage, there is an intake that enters a vent running between the two skins that form the top of the cage. This vent runs along the top to the right hand side, down the chimney into a fan house, where the fan blows the air out of the cage through an exhaust vent that is built into the outer cladding. I couldn't find a 230v computer-type fan in the UK, so I had one shipped from Hungary. It draws the air into the ducts then expels it through vents in the side of the cage.
For the interior of the
cage I wanted to do some fake rock.
I started out by cutting up and loose-fitting some insulation foam to form a basic layout. This was then carved and extra pieces were added to give it 3-D form. Unfortunately I got carried away carving and didn't take any photos until I had the basic shapes in place. As the cage is being designed to encourage Spyro to hide from the heat at midday, he would need somewhere to hide. Using the insulation foam, I made a cave for him in the cool end. Worn sandstone pillars are one of those clichés that immediately spring to mind when I think of desert regions; I couldn't resist adding one in. The paler surfaces are expanding foam that I used to fill gaps and to give me extra depth to the rock. Here's how it was looking after I'd almost finished the carving:
With the layout finished and glued in place, it was time to turn foam into rock. I used several thin layers of grout to achieve this. The first couple of layers were pretty watered down to make sure the grout got into every single crack in the foam. The first couple of layers were dark (still wet in the photo), followed by a few lighter layers. The final layer was pure white, to give me a good surface to paint onto. I slowly built up the texture on the grout. Because I was planning to give the rocks several layers of paint, I had to exaggerate any textures slightly, as the paint has a slight smoothing effect.
Initially I finished the cage by painting it with several layers of acrylic paint. This provided a nice, if somewhat smooth finish, as shown below:
However, after 6 months of use, a few chips were visible in the paint in the areas where Spyro decided he wanted to scratch and dig. I decided to use a couple of coats of two-part resin to toughen the cage up. To give a nice finish, I applied red Exo Terra Desert Sand to the wet resin. Once dried, this gave a very realistic red-orange sandstone-type finish which seems much more durable. During testing I hit a piece I had prepared with a hammer and it remained intact. Spyro will have his work cut out to damage the sand and resin combination.
This is a view of the sandstone pillar with the sand and resin applied:
This is the basking area with the sand and resin applied, showing the finish it gives and how well it fits in with the red desert sand used as a substrate:
This is a closeup of the finish that the resin and sand mixture gives:
Currently there are 3
lights in the cage, all individually controlled and timed. This will
allow me to vary the light levels and temperature depending on the time
of day, which should hopefully give Spyro a more realistic photoperiod.
First thing in the morning, a 40W bulb will come on to illuminate the
left hand side (the warm end) of the cage, providing enough light to
wake him up, but not too much in the way of heat; the cage should be
just above room temperature. After a couple of hours, the 40W turns off
to be replaced by a MegaRay MVB on the warm side, and a low energy
spotlight that brightens up the cool side. Around lunchtime, the 40W
comes back on, trained on the basking spot, to make that area very hot
and bright. The idea is that Spyro will now have to go and seek shade to
avoid the midday sun, as wild Dragons would.
At 2pm, the 40W turns off again, leaving just the MVB and low-energy bulb to provide "afternoon sun". The fan comes on a little later for a few minutes to put a gentle afternoon breeze through the cage and drop the temperature in preparation for the evening. At 6pm, the MVB and low energy lights turn off, to be replaced by the 40W which provides a little evening heat and light, but not too much. Over the next hour or two the cage cools down in preparation for nighttime.
This is a photo I took whilst testing the lights - the cage (in its original painted finish) is almost complete at this point. Only the "evening" light is on, which gives the cage a fairly realistic "dusky" red hue:
There are more photos of the cage at varying time of day as part of our Thermostats Guide.
If you have questions about the cage or the methods used in building it, I have this thread about it on Reptile Forums UK. I'd prefer if people asked questions on the thread on RFUK rather than emailing me about it; that way the questions and answers are visible to all. Registration is free, so sign up now!
Having had the cage in near-constant use for almost two years, I've had time to find out a few things about it. Firstly, the resin finish is exactly the same as it was when first done - it's withstood bleaching, disinfecting, insect attack, beardie attack etc with no visible damage at all.
The second thing that jumps out is that the MegaRay MVB is still going strong - this is an incredible lifespan for an MVB, considering most burn out after a year or so.
Spyros ever-advancing years mean that he's moved out into a lower, simpler cage that he can navigate better. As a result I've now moved a group of females into the cage and they seem to love it. They behave like Spyro did, basking early morning and late afternoon then retreating to the cave (or above the cave) around midday:
The added UV from the MegaRay seems to really bring out yellow tones in all of the dragons, and has enhanced their colour a good deal.