From the outside, the house Nick Tobler lives in looks like every other house along the street in his quiet neighborhood in Taylor Mill.
Inside, it’s a little different, filled with a variety of unique fish, reptiles and other animals that he’s collected over the years.
And below the house, there’s one thing that really sets his collection apart and has transformed him into a social media star: A pit for eels.
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Yes, that’s right, Nick Tobler has an eel pit.
A small home menagerie
Tobler lives in Taylor Mill, just south of Covington, with his brother, Chris Tobler, and another roommate in their grandparents’ old house that Chris recently purchased.
He grew up in Erlanger and graduated from Northern Kentucky University last year. He’s worked as an aquarium manager for pet stores around the area.
That’s in line with his passion: Fish, reptiles, amphibians and other aquatic life. Beyond the 11 to 12 American eels in the pit (he’s not entirely sure the exact number), there are a few dozen other animals inside the house, the pit and in the backyard, from Indian star tortoises and tarantulas to catfish and a caiman lizard .
Tobler’s favorite animal in his small home menagerie is an Australian lungfish named Mango, a protected species that looks a little like both a fish and an amphibian. Although his is a recent purchase and is still small, Tobler estimates that Mango can grow up to 4-5 feet long and live for decades.
How the eel pit went viral
Going by @CowTurtle, a username he came up with in eighth grade, on TikTok (364,000 followers), Instagram (109,000 followers) and YouTube (4,200 subscribers), Tobler has been sharing his journey to build the habitat.
He does more than post about the eels, although they are by far his most popular content. Tobler also posts photos and videos of species he sees while traveling and the various other animals that live in his house.
But it’s the eels that have grabbed the internet’s attention. Tobler has been posting his progress in readying the pit while the eels were in transit from his supplier. That included installing cinderblocks as a makeshift walkway and adding a pump, goldfish and catfish to the pit. Unfortunately for the goldfish, they’re also a food source for the eels.
The cistern is completely closed off from the neighborhood water supply and has been for a while. Tobler said it was a fairly simple process to put the habitat together.
In all, the pit (including the eels) cost less than $800. Tobler said that’s one of his cheaper animal-related investments. Some can cost thousands of dollars to acquire and for a proper habitat.
Tobler began posting on TikTok as a way to keep his Instagram stories (his app of choice) for more than 24 hours, and the TikTok algorithm picked up on his unique content, pushing it to hundreds of thousands of viewers.
Tobler’s most viewed video on TikTok is from April and has garnered over 11.7 million views. In the video, he gives an update on the progress of the pit and shots of the goldfish that live there.
Commenters had thoughts about another TikTok posted in April.
“The government fears the indoor eel farmer,” read one. Another said, “I know an arch nemesis air when I see one sir.”
The eels came from Timothy Sheehan, a supplier in Maine better known as @Tidepooltim on Instagram, and took about a month and a half to arrive.
And to TikTok’s delight, they arrived safely in Northern Kentucky last week. It was as if his followers breathed a sigh of relief. They had been waiting for this day for months.
“Gonna be a huge day for me,” wrote one user.
Legions of TikTok commenters suggested names for the eels, some of which Tobler has obliged, including Neel, Crunchwrap Supreme and Bathtub, to name just a few.
For Tobler, the answer is simple. Why not? He likes eels, and wanted some of his own. There are some aquariums in his garage that could eventually be home to a few eels, but for now, they all live together in the pit.
American eels, which are different from electric eels, live in freshwater environments and make their way to the ocean to reproduce. They are nocturnal and prefer to hide in mud, sand, gravel and other crevices in shallower water, feeding on small insects and fish. Their skin is slippery and covered in a layer of slime, allowing them to move easily in and out of tight spaces.
In captivity, they can grow up to four feet long and live for decades, so like his other animals, Tobler knows he’s in for the long haul.
When asked if surprised that his eels have gathered so much attention online, he shrugged.
“I’m surprised this, specifically, is what did it,” he said of his online popularity. “I think I do way cooler stuff.”
So, what now?
There’s always more to see and do and share with his followers. He’s planning an upcoming trip to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and would love to one day travel to Costa Rica, South America, the Amazon, Southeast Asia and Australia.
And there’s the question Tobler said he gets pretty frequently: What will he do if he ever decides to move?
“Worst case, If I ever do move,” he said, “I’ll just close up the manhole and take them with me.”