How to Convert a Vivarium into a Tortoise Table
- A New Keeper’s Tale -

by the Johnston Family

1.    Deciding to become a tortoise keeper

We did a lot of soul searching before deciding to commit, and the learning curve was steep as we’d never looked after a tortoise before, but wanted to be sure we had a good idea of what we’d be in for.  Decision made, and homework done, we had a frustrating search for our new shelled buddy, so I set to work designing a tortoise table.  Then, out of the blue appeared a creep (who knew?!) of Hermann hatchlings, and before I knew it Ickle Pickle was chosen and named.  Our tortoise table plans went out the window, however, when a comprehensive package was offered to best meet the needs of our newest family member.  The set-up included a vivarium and pellet substrate, and, as my concerns were all addressed in a seemingly logical manner, we scrapped the table idea. 

a)   Original vivarium sold to me as part of a complete set-up
b)   Pet shop recommended substrate and food

2.     Realising that the vivarium wasn’t ideal

Once home and set up, I made a quick checklist of the plants, flowers, and weeds in the garden (other than dandelions, which are in abundance), in the hope of listing the ones that were edible.  A quick search online brought me to The Tortoise Table, with its phenomenal resources.  Food research aside, it wasn’t long before I discovered the error of my ways, however, and the tortoise table was suddenly back in play.  I weighed up my options, and concluded that merging the new vivarium with my original table design would minimise any further costs (heat and UVB light were already installed), and provided Pickle with a more natural and healthy environment in a short space of time. 

3.     Constructing the table element of our vivarium conversion

From that moment, it was all hands to the pump, or tortoise house in this case, and after a quick recce in the shed, we found what we needed – an old coffee table that was exactly the right length to allow the vivarium to be integrated snugly.  A long day of children wielding saws to remove the legs, and my husband and I trying to figure out how to remove one side, including runners and struts, without dismantling the whole lot (which may actually have been quicker, in retrospect), then followed.  When the moment of truth came, however, the vivarium and table slipped together without any fuss, and stage one was com

plete.  I mistakenly thought that was the hard bit done, and the rest would be plain sailing, but then I had to line it.  
c)   Disused coffee table; perfect for up-cycling     d)   The table's underbelly that required some modification


4.     Lining and filling

Waterproof linings are fairly flexible, so I thought it would simply be a case of cutting it to size and fixing it in place.  Sadly, not.  Buoyed by my fantasies of being done in short order, the kids looked after Pickle while I removed the glass doors and the substrate, and set to work creating his new home.  Lining the upside-down coffee table with pond liner was straightforward, and even going up and over the bottom lip went quite smoothly.  The problem came when I tried to accommodate the two sides that the glass doors used to slide in to.  Folding, tucking, twisting, muttering, bending, trimming…I tried it all, until it eventually sat reasonably flat whilst covering all of the surfaces adequately (stapled and taped for good measure).  Now I had to do the other side, and Pickle was getting restless, so we put some 50:50 top soil/play sand mix (much more natural, and better for Pickle, than the original grass pellet substrate) in the open end of his new home and let him explore.  It definitely seemed like a good idea until I realised that I would be at full stretch to reach the back wall to attach the lining as I could no longer climb in…more muttering ensued.  After what seemed an eternity, and back and shoulder muscles that were questioning the wisdom of my ways, the liner was in.  In our excitement, however, we put in the rest of the soil/sand mix before I remembered the second floor needed to go in.  

e)   The lining that nearly wasn't

5.   Adding a second floor, and the finishing touches

We discovered early on that Pickle fancies himself as a bit of a sky-diving daredevil, but without a parachute we weren’t taking any chances.  We’d spent hours making sidings out of spoons, raiding the train set for track and trees, and even decorating it with wooden buttons, all simply to keep him from taking the quickest way down.  The raised area (or viewing gallery) with ramps looked well, and we were hopeful that Pickle would enjoy it too, but, ideally, it should have been in place before the 4 inches of substrate…doh!  That only left one realistic option – carefully dig a hole for it (watch you don’t bury Pickle!), and hope for the best.  Thankfully, it went in with only minimal jiggery-pokery (and some more muttering), and, with the structural work complete, the kids set about landscaping.  Finally, Pickle’s Idyll was ready.

f)  2nd floor adaptation for our sky-diving devil
g)   Arial view of Pickle's Idyll

6.     Verdict from the new occupant

So, does Pickle appreciate the change?  Well, I’m no tortoise whisperer (not yet, at least), but I’m pretty certain that, when he thinks no-one is listening, you can hear little squeals of excitement as he runs/slides down the ramp, clambers over rocks, and paddles in his water.  He hasn’t stopped exploring, but then why would he?  Each day is a new adventure, after all.

h)   Pickle enjoying his new and improved substrate, and fine-dining menu