A Chameleon’s Eulogy

Veiled Chameleon

Sometimes you find an animal that acts unlike any other of its species, that defies all published descriptions of typical behavior, that beats the survival odds, and that far outlives its maximum lifespan. It’s rare, but it can happen, and these rare finds make the finest of animal ambassadors. The stories that come with these special creatures teach lessons that are more far-reaching than just the facts—their stories teach empathy, and respect for living things, and they illustrate the delicate balance between man and nature that only we can control or change. “Camo,” a very unusual male veiled chameleon, was such an ambassador.

 Camo was given to Zooniversity back in 2002 by a pet store clerk. That pet store is luckily now out of business — luckily, because it was infamous for its poor husbandry and often ill wild-caught live inventory. We don’t know Camo’s history before he came to us, but he arrived in very bad condition. Whomever had last set-up his cage, had placed his heat light in a way that allowed Camo to get too close to it. He had badly burned all the tissue off of his back knee and the raw bone and joint was fully exposed. It was infected. He was in obvious pain and had no appetite. He would not last long in this condition.

Our reptile vet felt that a veiled chameleon’s delicate system would never survive antibiotics and the only thing we could do to save him was to administer hydrotherapy twice a day. Now, this might sound high-tech, but what this really meant was that we were to force his open wounded knee under a running faucet of warm water and hold him there for 15 minutes, twice a day. This was not a happy chameleon. Male veiled chameleons are notoriously aggressive, territorial, and difficult to handle. And, this lizard was in pain—so he was rightfully down-right mean. He would hiss and bite at anything that came into lunge range, including fingers. Even the thought of administering this treatment made me shutter.

Veiled Chameleon

That’s when I learned just how unusual, how un-chameleon-like, this lizard really was. After a few false starts, I drummed up enough bravado to reach out and pick-up this hissing, biting, pinching, writhing, green creature and held his open, infected knee under the heavy stream of warm tap water. Camo froze and those pivoting eyes searched in all directions and then locked on me. Then, he relaxed. He laid calmly in my hands for those 15 minutes, twice a day—first for weeks, then for months. Gradually, granulation tissue began to form and the open wound filled in with healthy, new pink skin. It was three months before the knee was fully closed and the infection gone.

Camo and I built a strange relationship in those months. He defied all written description of a male veiled chameleon. This species is famous for guarding their turf and for being easily stressed by humans, noises, or changes in environment. Experts said they should never be handled, the stress can kill them. Yet, this odd creature would climb towards me when I entered the room. He would open his mouth wide to have worms or crickets popped in or a stream of water dribbled in as he greedily swallowed. He would endure travel carriers and long car trips with no signs of stress and would allow us to display him at wildlife shows to thousands of children and adults. He would let us hang him upside down, curl his tail around branches, and as a grand finale he would flick-out his long tongue to grab a worm. Even applause didn’t seem to stress him. He was a Zooniversity favorite, requested by clients and loved by audiences for 6 long years. Mind you, this animal is only supposed to live 3-5 years and he was already an adult when he came to us. This was no ordinary chameleon.

Last year, Camo developed an odd little lump near his eye. The veterinarian removed it. Then one appeared on his snout. It was removed, too. Then another appeared, and another. Biopsies showed it was not cancer, but it was not normal and nothing seemed to stop the progression of lesions. Camo lost his ability to see his food, he lost his appetite and he started to lose his balance. It was time to let our dear chameleon go. Thank you, Camo, for teaching us all that there’s more to learn about chameleons, and all of nature, than what’s in books.

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