Bill Strand and Jonathan Jonathan Hill discussing Chameleon husbandry

Chameleon Breeder Husbandry vs. Keeper Husbandry

Should chameleon keepers have a different husbandry than chameleon breeders? It doesn’t make sense that they would, but that is a typical situation. We know why this is, but shouldn’t it be different? Would you, as a customer, be willing to pay what it takes for breeders to provide the same level of care as keepers do? On this post I share my thoughts on the matter, but in the embedded video, live talk, and podcast episodes I am joined by Jonathan Hill of iPardalis to discuss what we should expect from ourselves as breeders and as customers in the chameleon community.

Embedded video interview with Jonathan Hill

Embedded Podcast interview with Jonathan Hill

Live Video Discussion with Jonathan Hill and the Chameleon Community

My Thoughts on Chameleon Breeder Husbandry vs. Keeper Husbandry

As a breeder, cage manufacturer, and educator there has been a growing struggle within me over how to deal with the difference between common breeder husbandry and the husbandry I am working to advance through my Chameleon Academy outreach. New ideas, such as fogging, are much more easily implemented by the person with a handful of chameleons. The more chameleons the more difficult and time consuming it is to switch things over. A breeder that set up their entire infrastructure based on the husbandry we knew ten or fifteen years ago is not going to take kindly to a totally new caging, hydration, lighting, or supplementation implementation. If it is working then why change?

In a practical way, I agree that breeders should be the last ones to change their husbandry. Working out the bugs of implementing a new technique can be devastating when an unexpected problem is multiplied by 100 or many more cages.

Breeders have a set of pressures the keeper does not have. There are space constraints and time constraints. So the breeder husbandry has to be much more efficient. At least, that is what we say now. But in the back of our minds we ask the question, why is it different for breeders? Isn’t it the same chameleon with the same needs? The chameleon’s husbandry shouldn’t change to accommodate more chameleons in the same room. Husbandry shouldn’t be compromised because there are only 24 hours in a day and the breeder wants to keep more chameleons than can be maintained in that time. And you can see how this conversation is relevant for large collections as well.

I see a couple of discussion points here. To be clear, there are no easy answers and any change will probably be slow. The following are my opinions and I would like to hear yours.

I believe we need to get to the place where breeders give pet quality care for each chameleon.

I have gone through many stages in my growth as a chameleon breeder. There was a time in the 90s, (yes, last century, thank you very much) when I was doing personal study into how to keep chameleons in small containers. I would manipulate the room conditions and measure their contentment by whether they were scratching at the door or not. And I got very good at creating micro environments that chameleons would grow and mate. At least physically grow. And I know why I was not taking mental enrichment into consideration. It was hard to tell with a lizard that did nothing if it was content. Back then it was an accomplishment to breed multiple generations of panther chameleon. And I was doing that. Huge success! But that was then. Almost 30 years later, breeding multiple generations of panther chameleon is common place even to the point of concern for maintaining genetic diversity. We have established Panther Chameleon husbandry to the point where any chameleon person can do it. Just follow the recipe. Granted, you do need to have some chameleon experience, but I think we can all agree that the challenge in breeding Panther Chameleons now lies in how to care for multiple babies. Breeders burn out not because they can’t reproduce Panther Chameleons, but because they can’t sell all of the babies or they overwhelm themselves with ten clutches hatching at once. And so, we are past the stage of figuring out how to breed them and we can turn our attention to how to give them the most quality life. The question now is, how can we have a breeder community and have those chameleons be cared for with top quality? And I am not even talking about the latest in hydration or UVB methods. We can start the conversation with cohabitation of babies and the minimum cage size that we have collectively agreed upon for the last couple decades. I know, whenever I talk about this kind of thing I have breeders rise up and talk about how skilled they are at group raising babies and keeping adults in cages way too small. But it doesn’t hold water. I have been through that stage myself and there is no way that those practices are not compromising care for the chameleon. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are. Acknowledging that things things like sterile, small cages and group raising are compromises is the first step to having a honest conversation about how to move forward. Any breeder group-raising babies or using small cages knows they aren’t doing it because they think that is the best husbandry, but because it is within the chameleon’s tolerance zone and they can still physically grow and mate. Individual raising can show benefit in growth and lack of damage. No problem there. But with cage size, how could you even market that you sell happily enriched chameleons? And, if you did, how would the customers know you aren’t lying just to jump on the latest trend? It isn’t easy to measure.

I fully acknowledge I do not have a published scientific paper on chameleon enrichment and mental development so whomever wants to ignore these aspects will be able to hide behind demanding scientific proof for a long time. So, my audience for this will just have to be the keepers who think chameleons needing mental stimulation and enrichment just makes sense.

Moving our breeding standards to be in line with pet quality requires both the breeder and the community to value quality of life.

Like any movement forward it requires both the breeders to care enough to implement changes and customers to value the change enough to pay for it. For example, if a breeder has ten breeding pairs in smaller cages and switches to five pairs in larger cages the expenses don’t necessarily cut in half. And with babies, purchasing enough individual cages is a serious financial investment. So, business wise, with bigger adults cages and more baby cages, there is pressure to have to increased sales price. If competitors have not taken on the same burden then the progressive breeder will be less competitive. That is, unless you, the customers, value quality of life enough that you specifically patronize the breeders that give a high level of care and, this is the important part, are willing to pay what it costs for the breeder to provide that care. You see, if the customers only care about price then the businesses that succeed will be the ones that are able to give the lowest price. Right now, the huge factors are price and color. If a breeder can promise exceptional color they can charge a higher price. But what about breeders that individually raise their babies? Would you select a breeder because you know they raise their babies individually? Would you pay more? Jonathan Hill is, perhaps, the most progressive panther chameleon breeder in that he is the first one that I am aware of that has made individual raising the cornerstone of his breeding operation. That is what the I in iPardalis stands for.  “Individual”. He has shown that individual raising is possible for a retail breeder. And he has also show the quality benefits of a faster growing baby free off cohabitation stress and the various physical damages that sometimes come from cage mates. And there have been a number of breeders since advertising that they are individual raising as well. If you as the customer specifically shop individual raising breeders, and are vocal about that to both the breeder and on social media, then you will be helping to increase the quality of chameleon care within the community. Those actions will make it worthwhile for other breeders to start that way, or to switch over. You as the customer have the real power to enact forward change.

I would love to see boutique or small batch breeders start to become more common.

There is a huge benefit to being a small batch breeder of chameleons. Chameleons are a lot of work. You have not chosen the easiest creature to breed! But the reason why you chose to breed your chameleon, presumably, is that you love working with chameleons. Because I know you didn’t run real numbers and decide this was a great business to go into. We all know how easy it is to multiply number of eggs produced by $300 and decide you can quit your day job. Anyone who has since tried it also knows how wildly unrealistic that is. But, say you did push through and you are now caring for five clutches at once and a whole room of breeders. How much enjoyment are you actually having? I know you love to be able to say you are a breeder of chameleons and you love the idea. But how much are you really enjoying it? This is a common trap all of us fall into. We love chameleons so we get another. And another. Repeat until we find ourselves caring for them more than enjoying them. When you collect chameleons this can happen slowly until you wonder how you got where you are. With being a breeder it happens suddenly when clutches hatch. But, here is an idea. How about keeping two pairs in pet quality cages and plan individual caging enough to handle two simultaneous clutches and limited grow out cages. This allows you to be an active breeder, have regular availability and you can enjoy what you are doing. Your cages are beautiful and able to be shared on social media. When you are keeping chameleons in conditions that you are not proud to share on social media that is a red flag. Sure, this set-up is an initial investment, but if done correctly, it will serve you for many years and will quickly pay for itself in A grade hatchlings. More importantly, you can be proud of, and show off, how all your chameleons are kept. My future vision sees a wide network of small batch breeders.

Breeders are the cornerstone of our community and their hard work has gotten us where we are now. So there is no looking back and saying things should have been different. The reason why our community has grown to this point is the breeders who have made available captive hatched babies. We would have never gotten this far if we had only wild caught to work with. So, this discussion is not to second guess the past, but to look to the future and discuss where we can take our community.

And, yes, I am looking in the mirror. This conversation is not me seeing how I can complicate the lives of others from some ivory tower. I am 100% in the middle of asking these questions of myself. I love chameleons. I have a respectable sized group and I love breeding. But, I have limited space and time.  I don’t have the option of just saying the podcast guy doesn’t know what he is talking about. I have to reconcile what I am implementing myself in my chameleon husbandry with what I am sharing is the best husbandry.  If I can’t match my own standards I need to downsize until I can. And, yes, that is exactly the situation I am in right now as I am methodically revamping my entire set-up.

So, what are your thoughts? Do you see a justification for having different breeder care and keeper care? What are ways that we can develop an appreciation for chameleon quality of life in the community enough that it is worth it for breeders to offer that as a selling point?