Authored by Bill Strand – www.chameleonbreeder.com & the Chameleon Breeder Podcast
When I moved out to an apartment of my own, the first thing I did was to figure out where the chameleons would go. When young adults taste freedom for the first time they sometimes go overboard. I decided my dining room area would be better served as a free range chameleon habitat, complete with automated misting system. I built short walls and lined the entire area with plastic sheeting. It is a miracle when I had to take it down after a couple of years the carpet and walls were not molded out, but looked as preserved as when I had moved in. My thought, of course, was I should have free ranged the entire apartment!
Not everyone has the freedom to commandeer a useless room and claim it for ‘chameleondom’. Many people have roommates or spouses who might place having a dining table as a higher priority than a mini ecosystem. Still, others of you in this position may actually be trying to display your ‘fittingness’ for being a good mate selection. Choosing rain-forest over dining room could, in some sad circles, be considered a major mark against your assertion that you have grown up. But, I am not here today to talk about mate selection, nor am I here to talk about turning rooms into free ranges. I am here to talk about Chameleon keeping in small spaces.
Chameleon Apartments and Neighbors
At this point in my life I have a yard, garage, and a number of rooms to support my chameleon lifestyle. But it was not always so. When I started out in this hobby the draconian child labor laws of my country forced me into a grade school education and prevented me from getting a job to fund my own chameleon zoo. Yes, I did truly have a plan for a chameleon zoo and, no, the powers that were did not consider that a good enough reason to quit elementary school. Yes, I still maintain that zoo option would have been the best direction for me.
So this article is for those young souls out there who must limit their chameleon wrangling to their bedrooms or, later in life, corners of apartments. More and more, couples are enjoying the chameleon hobby together so you may not have to deal with tension within your apartment. But you are still in a community and when your neighbors find out you have a reptile and envision creepy things in the night, then when they find out what your reptile eats, they become super attuned to anything going on in your apartment and there could be conflict. It is amazing how people become so obsessed with what the neighbors are doing. Even in a house. I had a miserable neighbor once who was so concerned about what I did in my yard she risked her life balancing on her tub to look out a bathroom window to keep track of what I did in my backyard. She called the city inspectors and hauled them up to her bathroom when she saw I was building cages. She accused me of creating a cricket epidemic in the neighborhood because now she noticed crickets at night. Explaining the differences between the crickets I used as feeders, and the naturally occurring species just sounded like an admission of guilt in her ears. It was a wonderful day when she moved.
Another neighbor suddenly got terrified of any noise at night when she found out I had chameleons in the backyard. My explaining that chameleons slept at night and she was hearing ‘possums who were walking those walls long before I was ever conceived as a human being did no good.
Just assume these kind of people are living next to you and that, culturally, reptile keepers can fall victim to an easily whipped up mob hysteria.
So, chameleon keeping in small spaces is really all about keeping a low profile. I do not recommend keeping reptiles against rules and regulations, or sneaking one into your bedroom, but there are ways of making sure your hobby does not come under harsh scrutiny. We will be talking about keeping chameleons in small spaces. But, more accurately, this is a discussion about “Low profile chameleon keeping” because it really isn’t about the small space itself, but the complications of living in close proximity with other human beings who are wary about reptiles and insects. So these tips would apply just as much if you are living in a large house, but have a spouse or parent who really doesn’t like your chameleons. These low profile tips will come in handy to keep the peace!
Considerations in Selecting a Species for the Small Space
One reason for having a chameleon or any reptile for that matter, is for it to provide an emotional escape for ourselves
When thinking about keeping chameleons in smaller spaces like an apartment or bedroom the first thought is to pick a smaller chameleon who can live in a smaller cage. While this is certainly a good consideration I would recommend a smaller chameleon for a couple of different reasons. The difference between a 18” wide by 36” tall enclosure and a 24” wide by 48” tall enclosure is not really much, so you can still have the minimum size required for a panther or veiled chameleon. If you are so tightly packed where an extra 6 inches of width makes a difference, definitely go for the smaller species. But I am going to suggest getting the 48” tall enclosure or the largest enclosure available AND get the smallest chameleon possible.
Here is where I am coming from. First of all, if you have your entire life in a bedroom or a small apartment it is easy for us humans to feel packed in and cramped in small spaces. One reason for having a chameleon or any reptile for that matter, is for it to provide an emotional escape for ourselves. It is a slice of the natural world which we are often separated from within our urban jungles, but still desire to connect with. I believe it is to our personal detriment that many of us come at chameleon keeping with the idea of getting a chameleon and wrapping the smallest possible recommended cage around it. We throw a potted plant on the bottom and some sticks for perching. Our chameleon is then forced into being a living piece of art always on display. Not only do we feel cramped by our tight living spaces, but the chameleon we look to for our emotional escape also looks cramped by his tight living space. That is not much of an escape for us. Instead imagine how you can take the minimum suggested size cage for a panther chameleon and, by putting in a smaller carpet chameleon for example, you have doubled the perceived space of your chameleon cage!
Let’s get away from doing the math and focus on what really counts – the feeling you get when you look at your chameleon friend doing what chameleons do. The cage is not supposed to be a holding cell for him to wait until you want to call upon him to come out and amuse you! Come at it as if you are creating a beautiful slice of nature for your peace of mind and that your chameleon is just one part of the whole picture. Your chameleon should have the space to sleep on a favorite perching branch, move to warm up in the morning, traipse on over to the feeding area, rest in a leafy retreat, and then come out in the late afternoon to hunt for the evening meal. By creating an environment with many microclimates, zones, and hiding places your enclosure will become a source of peace for you as you watch nature play itself out. The smaller the chameleon, the more you can create a feeling of space within the smaller confines of your room. A smaller chameleon makes your cage more spacious and allows you to create the calming feeling of peering into another world.
The second consideration is food. When you are living in close quarters with others you need to be careful about what you feed your chameleon. Getting roommates or family members to accept a chameleon is not hard. Even if they are nervous about reptiles, chameleons often get a waiver on that! Getting them to accept a bin of crickets is a bit more of a challenge –especially when they go into full chirp mode at 2AM. A roach colony? Now you are really pushing it! The thought of having insects in the house or apartment can cause concern for the owners of the property. We pay people to come and remove insects from our properties and this renter is actually breeding these things? Infestation is the first thing that comes to the minds of parents or property manager’s. So here is where the smaller chameleon helps. Smaller food is easier to keep. And, in the case of crickets, two-week old crickets do not have their chirping wings yet. If you go really small into pygmy chameleons, you may also make use of flightless fruit flies and bean beetles.
The last consideration is if you just cannot bear to go without breeding your chameleon. A number of people are happy with one chameleon and are not affected by the siren song of breeding chameleons and having the cutest babies on Earth hatch out in your room. I have met people like this and I can verify they exist. You may have guessed I am not one of those people and even though the last thing a person in a small space needs is to have a clutch of babies to take care of, there I was raising up a litter of Jackson’s Chameleons in my apartment. There are ways to pull this off successfully. Smaller chameleon species will have smaller clutches and the babies will be able to stay in smaller cages longer.
Perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to the very beginning. There is no species of chameleon you cannot keep in your bedroom or apartment if you decide to dedicate the space. I knew a couple of people who lived in apartments and had small Meller’s chameleon colonies. As Melleri are among the largest of chameleons every other species can be accommodated – at least in terms of space – if you really want it. But we are going to focus on this concept of a small chameleon in a large cage.
To go the mini chameleon route you have two main choices depending on your interests. You can stick with smaller species of the standard type of chameleon which are just smaller versions of the common panther or veiled chameleon or else you can go into pygmy chameleons which are a different experience.
Candidate Species for the Small Space
Let’s start with the “standard” chameleons. These can come in around 6” to 9” or 15 to 23cm total length. That is with much of that being tail. One of the most commonly available mini chameleon is Furcifer lateralis, the carpet chameleon. This chameleon has the distinction of the female being more colorful than the male. But the male makes up for this with his intricate patterns. They can be kept much like panther chameleons. The carpet chameleon is from Madagascar and has been consistently available as wild caught, but many breeders have made carpet chameleons regularly available as captive bred. It would be well worth your time to wait for a captive bred clutch to hatch!
This happens so often I actually dedicated an entire podcast episode to what to do when surprised by baby chameleons!
There are a number of live bearing mini chameleons who are sporadically, but still regularly available. I will always advise you to get captive bred chameleons and if you have a chance to pick up any of these as captive bred I would suggest to jump on it quickly! These are not difficult to breed, but most of them cannot be sold for much money so breeders end up doing it only for fun as they end up losing money on these species. So wild caught make up most of the availability. And thus, I must give you the caution that these chameleons tend to come in gravid and can store sperm for later self-impregnation. What this means for you is you could purchase a single female and one year later be surprised by babies one morning. Which sounds exciting – and it is for the first minute – until the realization hits you that you have no idea how to take care of a gaggle of baby chameleons! This happens so often I actually dedicated an entire podcast episode to what to do when surprised by baby chameleons! That would be the Chameleon Breeder Podcast episode 2 if you are interested in such matters. And if you bring home a female livebearer I would suggest giving it a listen just in case.
Trioceros jacksonii merumontanus is spectacular due to its large three horns giving it a prehistoric appearance. There are three subspecies of Jackson’s Chameleon and you would be looking for the Mt. Meru Jackson’s Chameleon which looks like a more colorful version of the more common Large Yellow-crested Jackson’s Chameleon. The thing to note about the Jackson’s Chameleon is the males can be pretty active for their size so, if this is the species you select, give serious consideration to the extra-large cage mentioned above.
Trioceros sternfeldi, which was previously erroneously called “rudis”, is a very charming livebearer whose size and pleasant green color make this species a joy to keep. There are also a number of other Trioceros species such as bitaeniatus (the desert side stripe chameleon) and ellioti that fit this bill.
Recently, we have been lucky enough to have the South African dwarf chameleons such as Bradypodion thamnobates made available to chameleon keepers. These are a wonderful species and are quite hardy.
There are also a number of smaller species now coming in from Madagascar. Species such as Fucifer campani, willsii, and minor or Calumma nasutum and gastrotaenia have become available. Although I would like to caution you to make sure you know what you are doing if you decide to get involved in a species just starting to be worked with. Getting a wild caught is one challenge against you. Getting a wild caught species that does not really yet have care requirements defined is a second challenge. If you go captive bred you most likely have at least one person you can go to who has experience keeping that species in captivity!
Another option for you is to create a beautiful vivarium for pygmy leaf chameleons. These bizarrely shaped chameleons can mimic dead leaves or have spikes and ornamentation that hides their shape. They are at home on the forest floor and in low brush. These are perfect for creating a naturalistic vivarium like those in the dart frog community would. There is definite fun in having a vivarium with pygmy leaf chameleons in it and seeing how long it takes before your guests can figure out there is actually an animal inside. They’ll know something is amiss when that dead leaf saunters off…slowly…but surely… on its own accord! A naturalistic vivarium allows you to create mossy knolls and plant beautiful plants in an indoor garden type of way. Mini orchids can brighten up the area. Vines can grow over the walls. If you are going to have a cage taking up precious space in your small area then invest in making it a thing of beauty that you are proud to show off and enjoy staring into.
Naturalistic vivariums open up a whole new world as your chameleon is just one part of the multitude of life forms. You are balancing out an ecosystem with your chameleon, a wide range of plants, and arthropod cleaning crews who are meant to maintain the system and process the waste. Naturalistic vivariums are amazing and an art unto themselves.
Extra Complications with Feeding
Let’s get back to your apartment or bedroom. You are going to have to feed your chameleon. This means you are going to have to have insects in your living space. This is where the major conflict could occur with the reptile hesitant people in your life. Regardless of what level of insect keeping you engage in, there will some time, some day be an escape.
There are three levels of insect keeping
- Breeding the feeders
- Holding purchased feeders for a couple of days for gut loading
- Just throwing some feeders directly into the cage.
If you have been around for just a short time you’ll know level 3 usually isn’t a valid level. Only in rare cases would the insect offered be nutritious as it comes in. Feeders purchased from a pet store or online will almost always need to be gut loaded for a day or two first. The exception to this, of course, is wild caught insects which you will want to feed immediately to not lose nutrients.
But even if you just throw feeders in the cage, there will still be the danger of escapees when you open the door and do not notice the cricket or roach from the previous feeding hanging on the inside. If you live with a family who is not understanding about finding a worm trucking down the hallway, a roach hanging out in the living room or a cricket singing his heart out in the middle of the night, then this could put you in a tight situation. Here is another place where a smaller chameleon is an advantage. The food is smaller, less noticeable and you don’t need chirp age crickets. In my experience, the biggest problems come from chirping crickets and roaches of any kind. The crickets because of the noise and the roaches because of bad press and historical squeamishness. All of these points are magnified if you are a level one insect keeper and you insist on breeding your feeders because that is just what you do. The roach stigma is unfortunate as dubia roaches are a very easy to breed. If you want to breed a feeder consider breeding superworms. They are easy to breed, do not make noise, and are not prone to smelling with regular maintenance.
Environmental control is an important consideration when you live in a small space. Make sure the species of your choice is able to be comfortable in the conditions you must live in. This may seem obvious, but it becomes a real issue when you are not in control of the thermostat. Keeping montane chameleons may not be a good idea if you live in a bedroom where the head of the household does not believe in spending money on air conditioning. Having a head of household who does not believe in using a heater is a little easier because you can use a heat lamp, but if you are told to just put on a sweater, then you’re going to have to be creative in your caging to retain heat and then in the summer to highlight ventilation. But be honest with yourself as to whether you will truly be able to care for a chameleon if the environmental conditions are out of your control and are on the edges of human comfort. Temperature-wise, most chameleons are pretty comfortable when we are with simple modifications, like a heat lamp. If you are not comfortable then you will have to go through some extra measures to successfully keep a chameleon.
If you are in an apartment and have air conditioning or heating in the room with your chameleon be aware of cool or warm drafts that will over cool, over heat, and dry them out. Since you don’t have a lot of room to work, if you do not have more placement options you’ll have to block the draft with something or just make one side of your cage solid so there is no airflow there.
Special Note on Water Damage
Automated misting systems are the most reliable hydration method for chameleons. They provide regular hydration, hygiene, and humidity. But they also can malfunction or act unexpectedly. If you set the timer to run the pump from 11:55AM to 12AM it will do exactly as directed and fill your cage with 12 hours and 5 minutes of water. Not only will your entire water basin be emptied into your cage, but your pump will run dry for hours. It is precisely that I keep forgetting whether noon is 12AM or PM that I like 24 hours clocks! These kind of mistakes, as well as plain equipment malfunctions, happen to all of us. The difference when you live in an apartment is the people below you complaining of water coming from the ceiling brings unwanted attention from the apartment manager. While there is no way to totally accident proof our lives we can use a little planning to lessen the effect. Making sure your drainage tray can hold the amount of water in the pump water basin is a great step. This is possible by putting just a day’s worth of water in the pump basin or else you can install a bulkhead in your drainage tray which will allow it to gravity drain into a larger receptacle. You may never make a programming mistake and your pump may never malfunction to the “on” state, but considering the consequences of that situation, it is worth it to be over prepared.
In the end, there isn’t any difference in husbandry when living in a small space. From the husbandry perspective, you can keep any chameleon. It is really the care surrounding the chameleon that could be an issue.
And are any of these approaches different from when you live in a large space? Not really. Just because you have a large space doesn’t mean you or your family will enjoy a cricket chirping in the middle of the night. What is different are the consequences and the seriousness of the reactions of the people around you. If you share an apartment with a reptile loving partner then turning your living room into a full-blown reptile room may not be an issue at all! If you live in a five bedroom house with a spouse who is bothered by reptiles then you need to take steps towards low profile chameleon keeping.
I live in a house now, but remember my apartment days fondly. There certainly were challenges, but I was able to enjoy keeping chameleons even in the small space and in close living quarters with other people. Plan carefully, be aware of those living around you, and with attention to low profile chameleon keeping you too can enjoy a slice of nature in your room.
Note from the author – My name is Bill Strand, and I host the Chameleon Breeder Podcast. I have always had in mind I would do an episode focusing on people who want to keep chameleons in an apartment, or their bedroom. I have known about www.reptileapartment.com for a while, but it wasn’t until I read the “About Us” did I realize they were serious about the name! It wasn’t just a cute name. It is a site that has its roots literally with keeping reptiles in apartments. So this offered a great opportunity to work with them to spread the discussion! If you’d like to listen to this article, come check out the podcast! The Chameleon Breeder Podcast is a free weekly podcast dedicated to the art and science of chameleon keeping. A new episode is released every Friday. You can find the podcast on iTunes or listen online at www.chameleonbreeder.com. There is even a dedicated app on the iTunes app store that makes listening easy and gives you access to the entire library of past shows.