It's Not Easy Being Green

They are colorful, docile, unusual and charming with a tail like a monkey and feet more like a crab than a reptile. Their globular eyes rotate independently giving them a comical, clownish appearance. They change their color and markings to reflect their mood, temperment, and to regulate their temperature. Their movements are slow like a tortoise, yet their tongue will flash from their mouth with lightning speed to capture insects from amazing distances.

Most species of chameleons are small and require less heat than many reptiles. In some respects, chameleons would make ideal reptile pets except for one thing.

They die.

True, old-world chameleons (different from green and brown anoles which are sometimes sold in pet shops as "chameleons" because of the anole"s limited ability to change colors.) are highly evolved and delicate reptiles that are regarded as "experts-only" pets because of the extensive care required to maintain them. They are poorly suited to life in captivity. Most do not survive more than a few months.

Respected zoos, including the San Diego Zoo, have tried unsuccessfully to keep true chameleons. Several species of chameleons have never bred in captivity.

Unfortunately, their delicate nature and failure to adapt to captive living have not prevented the pet industry from collecting and marketing chameleons. In years past, true chameleons were rarely seen in pet stores in Minnesota, except for a few reptile-specialty stores. Today they are a common sight in main-stream stores like PETsMART. Some pet stores are having a difficult time selling iguanas and are shifting their focus to other reptiles, including chameleons. They are sold to inexperienced buyers who are unware of the delicate nature of the animals they are buying. Often, they are sold as pets for small children.

Jackson"s Chameleons (Chamaeleo jacksonii) are the most common chameleon found in the Twin Cities and are native to Mt. Meru and Mt. Kenya in east Africa. In 1972, thirty-six animals were imported by a pet shop owner in Oahu, Hawaii. They arrived thin, malnourished and dehydrated. The chameleons were released to recover from the stress of shipping and quickly established a sizable, although inbred population on the island. This Hawaiian population is the source for virtually all of the animals available for sale in the US pet trade. These wild-caught animals are often sold under the label of captive bred.

Biologists and environmentalists have expressed concern that these imported chameleons may damage the fragile ecosystem on Oahu. To help reduce their numbers, the state of Hawaii has encouraged the trade in these Hawaiian-caught chameleons. This has led to unintended side-effects which have actually increased the numbers and distribution of chameleons in Hawaii. Animal dealers on the islands have relocated Jackson"s chameleons to other islands to ensure an abundant supply for the pet trade.

More information about chameleons, including detailed care instructions, may be found at the Animal Ark web site at .