an old chameleon

Ep 79: Mourning Your Chameleon


Good morning, my friends. Today we are going to be talking about the heavy topic of how we handle the loss of a pet chameleon. This is for the keepers that have bonded with their chameleon and have now had to face the loss of that friend. If you are the type that numbers your chameleons and see them as genetics or keeps them isolated and true to their wild nature as possible then there may not be an emotional attachment. This is absolutely okay and more chameleons than not are very happy with that arrangement! If this is your way then this episode may not be your thing. This week is for the keepers who allow a chameleon to be part of their family. While this most likely appeals to the family that purchases a baby panther chameleon and raises Rango as a beloved pet, this also can apply to the most logical and scientific of us who have our breeding projects. We hatch and sell. But with each one of those projects, if they go on for a number of years, there is always that one or two or few chameleons that stay with you. Somehow, somewhere along the way, chameleon 24601 becomes Candide or Sarge or Safari. They get past their breeding age, but we just can’t let them go. Congratulations, your heart wouldn’t stay locked up and now this chameleon is more than an ectothermic vertebrate. And should the day come that Sarge is no longer sitting on his branch cautiously acknowledging your approach there is suddenly a hole in your life. Ironically, it is sometimes the logical ones among us that are hit the hardest by this loss. And that is because we never knew we cared so much.


Most of us who bring a pet into our lives will have to, one day, deal with that pet leaving us. I say most because there are some birds and tortoises that will outlive their owners. But we chameleon keepers are not in that boat. Chameleons have a lifespan of anywhere from a year or two to perhaps 20 years. And this is worth speaking about ahead of time because it is not uncommon for a chameleon owner to lose their chameleon and then find they have no idea how to deal with the feelings they didn’t realize they had. We spend so much time and energy learning about our chameleon and working with it that, somewhere along the way, our chameleon became something more than  “just a lizard”. With chameleons wearing their emotions on their sleeve – literally through their color changes – there is a great deal of true communication that goes on between us and our chameleon. Those of you who have raised up a baby chameleon, watched the little guy grow up into its adult colors or horns, and developed a relationship with its individual personality know that there is strong bonding that happens.

I tell the story of many years ago where my wife, Yvette, helped me raise up a clutch of panthers. I arranged their sale ahead of time and sent them all off one afternoon. Although it was fun, it was a lot of work and I knew she would be relieved that it was over. Yvette was out doing some errands at the time and I texted her the good news that all the babies were off! Yeehaw, No more hours spent cleaning and feeding! When she got home she stayed in the car for a while and, after a little bit, I went to go see what was up. I found my wife bawling her eyes out. This was her first clutch that she had cared for. She had gotten to know them and their personalities. Remember that I raise babies individually. Especially when you do this –  you get to know them as individuals even though they are just babies. Each one has their distinct personality right out of the egg!  So it is easy to understand how the forever-home owner who spends years nurturing their one baby up to adulthood and old age would be so much more connected. So how do we handle the loss of our friend?



Now, I just want to start this episode on the right foot. This has nothing to do with how much emotional capacity a chameleon has. It is obvious that chameleons form basic relationships with us. They equate us with food, get comfortable around us to the point where they eat from our hands or engage in even more interaction. For all my admonishing that we do not project human emotions and feelings onto our chameleon, there is no doubt that there is a basic trust that a chameleon develops with its owner. Chameleons can easily tell the difference between people and trust must be earned. Regardless of what level of relationship they are capable of, there is no denying that we ..form bonds.. with them. And when they pass, the severing of those bonds is real and it is painful.


Perhaps the hardest thing about losing a chameleon is that your family and friends may not understand or fully appreciate this emotion.

The first thing many of us hear when we are caught with a tear in our eye is “it was only a lizard”. This will come from well meaning family and friends who just don’t understand. You see, it has nothing to do with what it was or wasn’t. It has everything to do with what it meant to you. And this adds a loneliness to the pain.   We humans work through emotions by sharing them. So when you need comfort you will probably need to go to your circle of chameleon friends as they may be the only ones who truly understand.


But please do not let any person’s lack of understanding lessen the beauty of the time you had with your chameleon.


Now, It is incredibly hard to find a silver lining in this, though a universal truth is that the sadder you are, the deeper you loved. And the deeper you loved, the more the relationship changed you. And that is a beautiful thing. Beautiful things are not always free of pain and change as a human being is rarely with out discomfort. Regardless of whether you can see good in this or not, there is no getting around that right now you feel horrible. And I am going to say that is okay. It’s healthy. You lost a friend. Allow yourself the time to process what is happening. This is not the time to dull your feelings by immediately replacing your chameleon. Give yourself time. Don’t worry, another baby chameleon will be available when you have worked through your sorrow and figured out what happened.

And yes, figuring out what happened is part of the process. We need to grow from this experience both emotionally and in our husbandry. Identify what happened. If the vet or online discussion did not give a definitive answer there is always the option of a necropsy which is an autopsy that your vet performs on the body. This can give insight into what may have been wrong on the inside. It is your job to figure out how that happened. Your vet would be a good source for why the liver was mottled or why the fat pads were so huge. But find out why.


There is one emotion that plagues us chameleon keepers more than other pet lovers might have. And that is guilt. Chameleons have such different husbandry and there are so many pockets of bad advice that it is easy to fall into providing poor husbandry without knowing it. We have keepers who have no problem spending what it takes for proper care, but with bad advice you don’t know what you are missing. And you don’t always bump into the right people before your chameleon gets sick. With nothing to compare to, how would anyone know when a chameleon is off? We see keepers showing off chameleons riddled with MBD and, because they have no healthy chameleon to compare to, they are unaware that their pet is dying. And when they do bump into the right people and get plugged into the right community it all floods on them the realization of how bad the situation is. When their chameleon dies they are shouldered with the realization that all it would have taken would be the proper light bulb and their chameleon would be alive now and healthy.


At least with dogs and cats you don’t have to think as much. There are established best practices. Follow the vaccination schedule , wellness visits and dietary advice and you are able to have a great life with your dog! The path isn’t as clear cut with chameleons.


And this happens at all levels of experience. It was only last year that I noticed a swelling on the head of one of my chameleons. Excess fat? Maybe edema? It is in a strange place for any of these. I’ll cut back on supplementation. He is eating and active and shows no signs of being sick. Fast forward to the point where I decide this needs to get looked at and I find out that this was actually a bacterial infection. It wasn’t growing on the outside because it was eating downward into my chameleon’s skull and if I had brought him in sooner he could have been saved. My lack of decision cost my chameleon his life and I have that on my conscious. I couldn’t sleep soundly for days. Each of us has our own story that we really would rather not share publicly, but it rages inside of us. It took me months before I could stop beating myself up for that mistake and talking about it now brings it all back up.

So what do we do about guilt?…… Embrace it…. Dig deep and understand what it was that we could have done differently. This isn’t a blame thing. Blame is useless. It is making sure it doesn’t happen to you again. The only way to get rid of the guilt is to acknowledge it truthfully and then let it heal over time. The easiest thing to do is to figure out how to blame something or someone else. If only the vet would have had a sooner appointment. If only the breeder didn’t sell me a genetically inferior animal. It couldn’t have been my husbandry because I did it all right… That just keeps the poison bottled up. Let all that go. Finding a convenient scape goat only dooms you to repeating the part that was your responsibility. If you have to go through being angry then go through that stage and get it out. Just be careful that you do not lash out. Let the pain be without action for now. There will be time enough for whatever action you feel is appropriate once your head clears.


What has helped me with closure is that I have a burying ceremony where I lay my friend to rest. To do this I will dig an appropriate size hole that is deep enough that dogs, cats, and raccoons won’t be able to sniff things out and dig my hole back out. I line the bottom with rose petals, lay the body of my chameleon on the rose bed, and then provide a blanket of more rose petals. Once I fill the hole up I place a picked flower on top. That flower represents the time we spent together. The flower wilting and going back to the earth represents this chapter in my life coming to a close.


It helps for me to say some words of goodbye. That just seems to be the thing that provides the closure. Hearing it out loud somehow makes it more real. I am not a poet so forgive me my form, but these are the words I speak when saying good bye. I call it the Dragon’s Embrace and, if you are not sure what to say, you are welcome to take these words as your own message of farewell to your friend.


Dragons Embrace

We met along life’s path


You from the heart of an ancient dragon

And me from my human world


Our paths crossed; we shared a story together.

And now, too soon, that heart calls you back


I speak these final words to close our chapter

As I lay your body to rest


Your memory forever with me

As you return back

to the Dragon’s embrace



Every chameleon that I have lived with has added to my life. Every chameleon has contributed to what I share. Their physical bodies leave, their time passes. But their influence remains. Each article I have written over all these years and each podcast I have shared is because of them. They go on in me and this is how I honor their memory.


And your chameleon will go on in you. Everything you have learned goes towards strengthening you as a person. You took time to see the world through alien eyes. There really is no greater exercise of empathy than that. And if this experience truly affected you and you are looking for a way to honor your chameleon and the time you spent together then take what you learned and make it mean something for those still here. There are chameleon rescues that are helping chameleons struggling with life right now. Donate $25, or any amount, to a rescue in the name of your chameleon. If you don’t have money to give then honor your chameleon through your actions. You just spent all that time trying to figure out how to see the world through the eyes of a dinosaur to best take care of it. Surely you can pick one person in your life that you don’t understand and use that developed empathy skill to try and see the world from their perspective. On the surface we are all different, but the deeper down you go the more we are the same. If you can feel for a dinosaur, just try that once for a fellow human. And if you are able to bring a smile where there wasn’t one before then you have made the ultimate learning experience. You took something seemingly totally unrelated- chameleon keeping -, found the underlying truth behind it, and used it for personal growth to make the world just a little bit better.



So where do we go from here? Well, you get on with your life. You give yourself the time to heal. Immerse yourself in activities with family and friends and maybe give the chameleon world a little break. This may have been a once in a lifetime experience and you may be ready to try other things in life. If that is the case then take your chameleon memories with you and enjoy knowing you spent time communing with a real life mini tree-dragon. Not many people can say that. But if, once the pain has faded, you find yourself scanning the chameleon pages on social media. You day dream of horns and casques and impossible colors. You miss the adrenaline burst of when that tongue snags the cricket from your fingers. Well, then maybe it is time to consider coming back. Maybe it is time to approach the heart of that ancient dragon and bring back a tiny wisp of a dinosaur…whose horns, casque, and colors will come to be under your loving care.

Because every day is open for starting a new chapter.


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