Once you have the right enclosure, with the right lighting, heating, basking platform, substrate, and humidity levels, you have a fairly functional ackie monitor enclosure. But your work is not done yet. If you leave it at that, you’ll have a fairly minimalistic setup that only meets the bare minimum of an ackie monitor’s needs in captivity. Minimalistic setups are horribly boring for your pet and do little to keep them engaged and entertained.
Thus you have enclosure decorations. Although they tend to make an enclosure more attractive, if you leverage them strategically, they can play a greater role as sources of environmental enrichment. Environmental enrichment items support an ackie monitor’s mental and physical wellbeing by mimicking their natural environment and providing things for them to smell, explore, climb, hide under, and otherwise interact with. Environmental enrichment is so important that it’s a critical feature of ethical, well-run zoos. It’s also part of the 5 Provisions of Animal Welfare.
As a particularly intelligent and active pet reptile, enrichment is especially important for keeping ackie monitors as pets. THIS IS NOT SOMETHING YOU CAN SKIP! Yes, sourcing the right environmental items can be inconvenient and even expensive, and I understand that at this point your budget is looking strained at best. But if you are not willing to invest in creating an enriched captive environment, then an ackie monitor is not the pet for you.
Here are some ideas for items you can use as environmental enrichment for ackie monitors:
In the wild, Ackie Monitors spend most of their time hiding. Despite being fairly social as far as pet reptiles go, they still enjoy ducking in and out of hides, and being able to quickly run to cover when frightened is important for reducing stress. As odd as it may sound, providing more cover generally promotes more social and interactive behavior because they feel more secure in their environment.
Cork hollows, curved cork flats, commercial reptile caves, and custom hide boxes can all be good for creating functional hiding places for your ackie. You can even lay a flat piece of stone on top of the substrate for them to dig under! Whatever you choose, make sure that it’s a tight fit for your ackie — tight spaces help them feel more secure.
Rocks function as both climbing objects and something to burrow under. An additional benefit of using a 12-18”+ deep substrate is that you can place rocks on top of the substrate without having to worry too much about the ackie accidentally getting crushed under one — if the rock shifts while they are underneath, they can easily dig their way to freedom.
You can buy rocks from an aquarium supply store or landscaping outlet (landscaping rocks are typically MUCH less expensive than pet store rocks). Universal Rocks also has some excellent artificial rocks if you’re concerned about weight, and they tend to double as great hiding places, too.
As with branches, you can save some money by collecting your own rocks. Make sure to give any rocks that you bring in from outside a good scrub with hot water and a plastic-bristle scrub brush, and then spray them with a veterinary disinfectant for porous surfaces like F10SC or Clean Break.
NEVER bake rocks as a method of sanitizing — if the rocks contain air pockets, they may explode and severely damage your oven!
Despite their penchant for burrowing, ackies are skilled climbers. Natural branches are great for adding a natural touch to your enclosure, and they also enable you to utilize vertical space that would otherwise go wasted.
Branches can be purchased from reptile supply distributors or collected from outdoors. Collecting your own branches can be a good way to get some unique-looking, large branches while saving money along the way. However, you do need to take some precautions:
- Only collect branches from areas that haven’t been treated with chemicals.
- Clean the branches before putting them in your enclosure. Give them a good scrub with water, then bake them on a tarp (or similar) in direct sunlight for a few days until completely dry. Spraying them with a veterinary disinfectant for porous surfaces like F10SC or Clean Break is a good final step.
Ledges are another way to provide climbing opportunities for your ackie monitor, as well as utilize otherwise-wasted wall space. Here are some options we recommend:
In the wild, ackie monitors are known to shelter under clumps of spinifex grass. You can recreate this effect with live or artificial plants. Plus, plants always make an enclosure prettier!
Artificial plants are convenient because they always keep their size and color, are super durable, and never die. However, this convenience comes with a risk: the plastics and dyes that they are made from can release toxins into the air. The effects that this has on reptiles is still fairly unknown, but we do know that reptiles have more sensitive respiratory systems than humans have, and “indoor pollution” from artificial materials in human homes is rapidly becoming a concern for human health.
That said, if you’re dead set on artificial plants, Custom Reptile Habitats has a great selection of artificial plants that are more likely to be safe for use in reptile enclosures, and looks very realistic.
Live plants have many benefits (increased ambient humidity, increase oxygen concentration, bioactive function, etc.), but there’s one big drawback: when restricted to the confines of an enclosure, an ackie monitor will happily uproot/trample any and all live plants in its environment. So don’t be surprised if your attempts to propagate live plants inside your ackie’s enclosure fail.
That being said, if you’re dead set on live plants, don’t let this stop you from trying. Make sure any plants you use are 1) durable, 2) drought-tolerant, 3) heat-tolerant, and 4) non-toxic. The Tortoise Table is a great resource for checking whether a certain plant you’re interested in is safe to use. Succulents and grasses are generally a good starting point. Although ackies don’t eat plants, the bugs that they eat sure do, and a cricket that nibbled on a toxic plant can become toxic in turn!
What does ackie monitor habitat look like?
Have I harped on the importance of environmental enrichment enough yet? Ha! Not possible. Here’s a great quote from Robert W. Mendyk’s excellent 2014 paper, “On the Thermal Husbandry of Monitor Lizards” to drive the point home:
“Successful herpetological husbandry demands that the biological requirements of a species are met, and that the environmental conditions provided in captivity replicate, as closely as possible, those available and familiar to a species in nature… Although some reptile species may do well in captivity when provided with minimalistic or ‘reductionist’ husbandry conditions, such conditions are probably inappropriate for most species as they offer less potential to fulfil biological needs…” (p.621)
An ackie monitor’s setup should roughly replicate the appearance of their natural habitat, as their evolution (and therefore basically everything about them) was shaped by that environment. Browse photos of wild Varanus acanthurus on iNaturalist or Flickr, and you’ll see that ackie monitor habitat is generally characterized by dry shrubland or desert with rock islands and clusters of spinifex grass, as well as the occasional tree. Peter Kuhn notes that they also make use of hollow logs and abandoned termite mounds.
Here are some photos of ackie monitors in their natural habitat to use as a reference point:
Photos of Ackie Monitor Enclosures
Of course, trying to make your enclosure look anything like a reptile’s natural habitat is challenging — especially if this is your first time. So here are some photos of noteworthy ackie monitor enclosures to use as inspiration:
- Introduction to Ackie Monitors
- Varanus acanthurus Subspecies
- Shopping List: Supplies You Will Need
- How to Select and Buy a Pet Ackie Monitor
- Enclosure Size & Roommates
- Lighting & UVB Requirements
- Heating Requirements
- Humidity Requirements
- Substrate Options
- Environmental Enrichment: Decorating the Enclosure
- Feeding Your Ackie Monitor
- Handling Tips & Behavioral Notes
- General Health Guide
- Additional Resources