Nick Tobler is a 25-year-old aquarium store manager in Kentucky, but you might know him better as TikTok’s eel pit guy.
More than 380,000 people follow his TikTok account @cowturtle and have kept up with Tobler’s absolutely wild adventure of turning a creepy, unused rainwater cistern under his garage into an even creepier 5,000-gallon pond fit for a dozen eels.
This week, he finally filled the pond with 12 American eels, and we all watched with a mixture of curiosity, excitement, and, frankly, fear. Fans pitched names for the eels — like Bathtub, Crunchwrap Supreme, Eelon Musk, Steely Dan, Mentally Eel, Eelissa, and Neel. A crayfish named Mayonnaise is also inside the spooky pit.
Naturally, we had questions. Tobler got on the phone with Mashable to answer everything from “are your eels in your will” to “why haven’t you introduced them to a dog?”
Mashable: Have you always liked eels?
Definitely. I’ve always wanted American Eels. It’s not actually a fish anybody’s really keeping — like there’s a couple old forum posts about them, but it’s not something that’s commonly kept or sold in stores like aquarium stores or anything. So I always had the intention of one day catching one myself and just taking it home with me and keeping it. But then when I saw the pit, I was like, well, that’s as good as it gets for a bunch of eels.
Do people fish for eels? And capture them as pets?
For the longest time, I was actually setting out traps. Well, I did it for two weeks two years ago. But I’ve always been catching native fish and stuff like that for my aquarium. And that was always one of the coolest oddball, weird fish that you can find.
You said you were always sort of into them. How do you feel about eel representation in modern media? The only times I’ve ever seen them are as the henchmen and The Little Mermaid.
Oh, they’re really cool [in real life]. I’m sure you’ve seen some of the videos. They do tame down, and in aquariums, they make great pets. They’re far more interactive than most fish just because they’ll eat out of your hand.. I’ve had fish and eels where you can just pick them up and they don’t care at all. They’re actually really relaxed laid back fish for the most part.
Do you own any other pets?
Oh yeah. I’ve got endless amounts: a bunch of fish tanks, tortoises, lizards. Caiman lizards are probably my coolest lizard. We’re actually breeding Indian star tortoises right now. Three hatched yesterday.
Have any of these other pets met the eels?
No. Later this year I’m gonna order three of the biggest eels that [the person I bought the eels from] catches this season, which will be around three feet. And then I might take the two smallest eels out of the pit and actually keep them in my aquarium inside. I’m setting up a 500-gallon aquarium inside right now. Eels actually mix really well with other fish, too.
Mostly just aquatic animals, then?
I was thinking about bringing my Chihuahua down. I just think it’d be funny.
I would love to see that interaction. What’s your chihuahua’s name?
Do you know the frog army guy?
I’ve seen a video here and there. I haven’t gone in-depth on it.
I think the fans would love to see some sort of crossover.
Oh yeah, I see a lot of that on Twitter.
Is it true that we don’t know how eels reproduce?
We haven’t seen it in the wild, but we pretty much know. They breed out thousands of miles… They breed out in the Caribbean from the rivers. They migrate back out, breed, and die.
Will any of your eels reproduce?
No. When you keep them in captivity or contained in something like this where they can’t migrate, they won’t reproduce. But they’ll actually, like, live forever. American eels have hit 80. European eels have lived to be 155.
What’s your plan if they outlive you?
We’re in it for the long haul… I’ve got a ton of long-living animals that me and my brother are doing together. And then, worst-case scenario, we both die, and it all just gets donated to a public aquarium somewhere. A lot of our animals are rare enough that there is a demand in zoos and stuff for stuff like this.
Are you saying you have to put the eels in your will?
No, I think, outside of me and my brother, nobody else wants them.
Are there eel conservation efforts you’re interested in?
I wish, but no, not really. American eels are [regulated] by state: they’re protected in Florida, but then they’re still used as fishing bait in Maine. But some of the other species, like the New Zealand longfin I believe, are protected. It’s the same family. The European is the one that’s really crashing, because they actually collect the babies, farm them in Asia, and then ship them as a food fish for sushi and things like that. So they are becoming rarer because of that.
What are you going to do with the pit if you move?
I’ll take the eels with me and I just put the manhole cover back on and won’t acknowledge it. That’s what it was when we got there. The pit was already there. I just added cinder blocks and gravel.
Did you expect all this TikTok fame?
Not off of this. I think I do way cooler stuff. If you go back just a year to what I was doing – I was always exploring the Cincinnati subway, catching all different types of animals.
Does it change the way that you approach this eel project?
As far as taking care of them, this was the exact plan from day one. I haven’t changed anything there. I’m definitely posting more because people wanna see. I’m trying to get at least a post a day, but ideally two or three just because there’s interest right now.
What kind of questions are you getting in your DMs?
Definitely, like, why don’t I have plants? Why don’t I get better lighting? Just different things like that. I want it to be a cave for the first year, at least. And then maybe down the road, if somehow I get paid from all this, I’ll upgrade the light and add plants and make it a swamp.
Is there a reason that it’s so dark down there?
Oh yeah. They prefer the dark, but I’m trying to train them to, when I turn on the light, they’ll be actively swimming around looking for food.
Because you wanna be able to hang out with them?
Yeah. I wanna see them when I’m down there. I wanna see them swimming.
How much does it cost to take care of the eels?
Honestly, super cheap. It’s probably one of my cheapest animal setups, really. It was gravel, cinder blocks, and a filter that was maybe $150 and that was probably my biggest expense.
Are the eels themselves not particularly expensive?
No. They’re still used as fishing bait in Maine. That’s where these came from, so they were pretty cheap.
Do you have any tips for folks who want to have eels for themselves?
Do it. It’s really easy. It’s fun. Aquariums are awesome.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.