Our Home with a Zoo by David Lambert

David Lambert’s article describes the aspirations and achievements of reptile and amphibian keepers in the 1960s and 70s and complements the other information on this site. I am most grateful to David for providing it.


As a boy I’d always kept fishes or other small animals. When I married there was small scope for them in the pocket-handkerchief garden of our first home, but much more when Wendy and I moved in 1967. Lack of space had kept the lid on my hobby; half an acre helped blow it off with a bang: collecting creatures became almost a mania. In the 1970s we shared the house and its garden in Kent with our daughter Sally’s guinea pigs and a Noah’s ark of reptiles, amphibians and fishes.

They lived in a tortoise enclosure and reptiliary with pond in the garden, a hutch in the shed built onto the house, and about a dozen glass tanks in the back porch and dining room: most on a “sideboard” (a wartime prefabricated bungalow’s wardrobe laid on its side) and shelves along the wall above and beside it. One deep accumulator battery jar on the floor held stick insects, another a Xenopus, or aquatic clawed frog.

A House Bestiary

Of the cold-blooded creatures we kept, I remember these best:

  • The clawed frog had slug-slippery grey skin, huge webbed toes, Struwelpetter-like fingers, and tiny button eyes staring up from the top of a low, flat head. He lay submerged in his tank, feverishly stuffed worms in his mouth with both hands, and trilled when a plane flew past.
  • Kaloula pulchra, our narrow-mouthed toad, reminded us of fat Mr Greedy in a children’s book, so that’s what we called him.
  • Firebellied toads resembling black pickled walnuts. Popeyed and with poisonous skins, they displayed their red bellies to warn off attackers.
  • European tree frogs clung like little green plums to twigs in their tank but would leap about nimbly to capture a moth.
  • The axolotls were salamanders that grew big but not up, keeping their feathery gills and swimmers’ deep tails. Unlike our fire salamanders, these Frankenstein’s monsters spent their entire lives in water.
  • Glossy yellow and black, with large, liquid eyes, adult fire salamanders resembled rubbery toys placed in a mossy tank. Their drab babies had broad, blunt, puppyish heads, prowled underwater in the manner of cats stalking prey, and skittered like eels if you touched them.
  • To dazzle his mate, the mint-green and black male marbled newt swam around, displaying his crested back and waggling his tail like a banner.
  • Green lizards blended with low-growing plants, but the males’ cheeks turned bright blue in spring. One adventurous female escaped from their reptiliary but climbed back in weeks later.
  • An Italian wall lizard that went often AWOL, used to climb up a shed.
  • Spinefoot lizards kept to a gravel strip just inside the reptiliary, its nearest thing to the sand their fringed toes were designed for.
  • A male red-eared terrapin wooed his mate face to face in their pond, extending his hands, palms outward, as if to embrace, then delicately flapping at the sides of her head with his fingers’ long claws.
  • The male marginated tortoise had a shell flared like a Second World War German soldier’s helmet and preferred a more militant courtship, tucking his head in and bashing his mate from one side.
  • The twig-thin rough green snake ate locusts in his tank by the dining room table. Not all our dinner guests seemed to enjoy watching that.

Keeping count

Stock changed as newcomers replaced specimens that had died or escaped. At one time or another we kept nearly 50 kinds of amphibians and reptiles. In August 1977 our creatures totalled more than 100. Five tortoises (three marginated, one spur-thighed, and one Hermann’s) roamed the tortoise enclosure. Two stripe-necked terrapins, two European pond tortoises, a red-eared terrapin, a marsh frog and 23 goldfish swam in the pond in our reptiliary. Its landlubbers included three foot-long green lizards, three wall lizards, two Algerian sand racers, a slow worm, and three common toads. Indoors lived 17 fire salamanders, a Rana erythraea, two white tree frogs from Thailand, two midwife toads, 16 marbled newts, one spinefoot lizard, a Siamese fighting fish, a Pelvicachromis, and many Indian stick insects.

Some of the time I should have spent working went on feeding our zoo. I gave cat’s ears and dandelion leaves, clover, lettuce, and apples to the tortoises; dried fish food, tubifex worms, and daphnia to the fishes; earthworms, maggots, fruit flies, mealworms, slugs, and moths to amphibians; mealworms, crickets, locust hoppers, stick insects, and small insects caught as hedge-sweepings to various reptiles; earthworms, liver, and whitebait to pond tortoises; bran to mealworms; and privet to stick insects. The reptiliary’s inhabitants also snacked on whatever dropped in: a marsh frog grabbed a dragonfly; green lizards cannibalized common lizards that climbed in from the garden; and something disposed of two yellow-bellied toads I had unwisely released into the reptiliary from a tank.

Most of our animals had come from mail-order suppliers. In those unregulated days their price lists were cornucopias of exotic wildlife that you could buy with no questions asked. Just popping a cheque in the post could bring you a caiman, palm squirrel, Alpine marmot, coatimundi, kinkajou, otter, antelope, even a sun bear. In July 1968, W. de Rover in Holland offered 93 species of reptiles and amphibians, many ridiculously cheap: 40p bought a tortoise that might now cost £140. Probably many were scarce and are no longer legally traded or moved from their country of origin. Our Algerian sand racers, spinefoot lizard, and marsh frog were found near Marbella, and the common toads I collected from Holden Pond, Southborough, or toadspawn gathered from there.

Looking back on it all

The longest-lived individuals of some species lasted with us far longer than others: Algerian sand racer and spinefoot lizard under 2 years; Pelvicachromis and Kaloula pulchra about 5; marsh frog and Italian wall lizard (brueggemanni) 6; midwife toad, Thailand white tree, edible frog and European tree frog 7; bullfrog and marbled newt 8; green lizard 10; Xenopus 11; green toad 13; fire salamander and red-eared terrapin 14; stripe-necked terrapin 16; goldfish at least 20; spur-thighed tortoise 24; European pond tortoise 26 (escaped); male marginated tortoise 47; and male Hermann’s tortoise 48 (these last two still living in October 2018). Full grown and with a rather worn-looking carapace, the marginated tortoise could have been old in 1971 when I bought him.

I feel guilty now, looking back on my small part in reducing the world’s stock of wild creatures. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I had managed to breed from them all, but the only successes came with newts, fire salamanders, frogs, shubunkins, some tropical fishes, and the one marginated tortoise egg that we managed to hatch.

London Zoo’s outdoor reptiliary

Slow-moving salamanders and toads settled down well in aquarium tanks, but I had thought that lizards deserved more living space. The ideal set-up would be a big outdoor enclosure for hardy reptiles. London Zoo had a fine one: a semi-wild rock garden maybe 20 yards long and 15 across, inside a concrete ha-ha with an overhang and a moat at its foot to discourage escapes. If the Reptile House was a high-security prison with every inmate on show in its cell, the reptile rock garden looked more like wild countryside. Creatures could hide among its cushion plants, heather, evergreen shrubs, small trees, and ridges of Westmorland stone. You had to peer hard to glimpse more than one or two wall lizards, green lizards, slow worms, grass snakes or adders. Spotting them was like solving a puzzle picture, more fun than just staring at snakes in a tank.

Dozens of grass snakes and adders shared this small plot of ground. Both species bred, but small boys and starlings made off with young grass snakes, and nothing was safe once herring gulls began nesting nearby. Perhaps that’s one reason why workers demolished the reptiliary about 1970 to make way for the Sobell Pavilions. If today’s standards of conservation and safety had applied, the place might never have been there. With the top of its wall at ground level, anyone could have fallen into what was effectively a pit teeming with poisonous snakes.

Our garden reptiliary

I decided our garden reptiliary would not include adders or other vertebrate eaters. It must also be smaller than London Zoo’s, and more cheaply and easily made. Choosing a site proved the easiest bit: I enclosed the herb garden on a south-facing slope created by the previous owners. Sage and thyme gave it a Mediterranean atmosphere that I fancied would make green and wall lizards feel at home.

How to prevent them escaping posed the main problem. Books on designing a reptiliary favoured a brick wall with an overhang. But the time, effort, and cost of building one put me off. Instead, I hit on the idea of a fence of corrugated PVC sheeting supported by wooden posts—cheap, easy to make, and too smooth for lizards’ sharp little claws to grip. Mastic coated with enamel paint sealed the corners, and to discourage burrowing I laid a path of narrow concrete paving slabs along the inside. But corners proved an Achilles heel once weathering had taken the gloss off their paint; if I were starting again I would eliminate corners by making a circular pen, as I did for the tortoises. What’s more this wouldn’t need battens tacked to the top of the sheeting to stop it flexing and sagging.

Reptiliary, Spur House garden, Lamberhurst c1970

The garden reptiliary

My diaries for 1968 and 1969 show that the resulting enclosure was 16 feet long and 9 feet wide, later broadened by replacing the straight eastern side with a curved one, making the whole like a capital D. Because the ground sloped from north to south, to keep the fence horizontal I set its north, west and east sides in trenches. That left the middle of the reptiliary two feet higher than the edges. Inside this hillock I inserted an old shallow stone sink upside down as a frost-free (I hoped) hibernaculum. On top of the hillock and into its side I set sandstone rocks salvaged from a Tunbridge Wells church demolished to make way for a Tesco’s. Across the enclosure’s low, southern end I dug a pond waterproofed by a flexible liner. The last job was furnishing the reptiliary with logs for lizards to bask on.

Lambert Lizards

Green lizards basking in the reptiliary