A guide to Free Ranging Chameleons



Authored by Karen Stockman of The Chameleon Farm

Free Ranging Chameleons

As free ranges are usually larger than traditional cages, this makes them perfect for larger species.

Recently I have seen many photos on various Facebook groups of chameleons “free ranging.” This is a bit of a misnomer as the chameleons are usually on the couch or curtains or in another less than chameleon-friendly spot. While it is fine to have your chameleon out and about for a time, true free ranging involves far more than letting your chameleon walk around on the couch.

What is Free Ranging?

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Living-Room free range

True free ranging is very similar to keeping chameleons in a cage; there are just no walls. But all the same requirements must be met: proper temperatures style= (affiliate link) and humidity must be maintained, UVB must be provided, as well places to bask and climb.

As free ranges are usually larger than traditional cages, this makes them perfect for larger species.

Free ranges are generally permanent living spaces, though many people do have a tree or other area to give their chameleons some time away from their cage rather than have a permanent set up. This is a great option for those who are not in a position to free range full-time, just be sure your chameleon still has plenty of access to UVB and all other needs are met.

Should I Free Range? Benefit VS. Risk

I loved watching them relax in our presence and feel comfortable enough to walk right up to us and eagerly hand feed

We all love more interaction with our animals, whether they be furred feathered or scaled. While chameleons are not the most interactive pets, free ranging does give us a chance to be closer to them and to see them exhibiting more natural behaviors. I admit, I LOVED the days when my living room was a free range full of curious melleri. I loved watching them relax in our presence and feel comfortable enough to walk right up to us and eagerly hand feed. At the time we had a group of them and they were just as social with each other as with us. A friend referred to them as “tree dogs” and I found that to be an apt description.

Because I was fairly new to keeping chameleons, I did keep multiple species in free ranges together or very near each other. I was lucky to not have fighting or injuries, but looking back at photos I do see signs of stress I was too inexperienced to notice at the time. I feel terrible about that, not only by the stress caused to my chameleons but the fact I promoted it as a great thing to do without the understanding and experience to see the issues. In nearly all cases chameleons would need to be separated due to subtle bullying causing another to stop eating, start hiding more or other small signs of stress.

Wandering chameleons are definitely a risk. Even if they do not get outside, there are many dangers inside

I currently do not keep chameleons in groups in a free range or otherwise. The risk is of injury or the spread of illness is too great. Even though the melleri were comfortable with each other, they did not like other species of chameleons; because I had veileds and panthers free ranging in another room, that would sometimes wander into the melleri territory, this caused the melleri stress.

And yes, wandering chameleons is one of the major risks. With no walls to contain them, chameleons may leave the free range. It happened many times; we would find chameleons on the floor or in a closet. One time a melleri got outside and was missing for six weeks! I felt terrible because I had not provided a safe place, and an animal I loved was gone. Fortunately she was eventually found, and in good shape, but all too often the story does not have a happy ending.

Wandering chameleons are definitely a risk. Even if they do not get outside, there are many dangers inside: people, other pets, electrical cords and outlets, toxic plants or other items, anything sharp, sticky, hot…the list goes on. Another downside to free ranging is the upkeep. Because free ranges are generally larger than cages there are more plants involved, lighting needs to be secure and not able to burn or injure the chameleon and of course drainage needs to be managed.

Feeding can also be a concern. Hand feeding or using a cup to contain insects are options but I found there would still be the occasional wandering cricket. Usually these are found chirping loudly in the middle of the night behind the dresser or other large piece of furniture.

I understand the risks and I want to give it a try – how do I make a free range?

Another trick to help minimize water from spraying everywhere is to cover the back (and sides, if you wish) with plastic

There are many ways to create a free range.  I discovered that the large metal racks you can purchase at Costco, Home Depot or similar stores are a great “frame” to start with.

I do not use all the shelves these racks come with. I have two on the bottom and one at the very top to hold the lights.

The very bottom shelf can hold drainage pans or it can be empty with the pans on the floor under the entire unit. About a foot or so above the bottom shelf I put another shelf to put the plants/trees on. I use the four poles to attach vines and branches.

Also on the top rack is where I attach the misting nozzles. I usually hang plants such as Pothos from the top rack as well.

The drainage pans I use can be found at home improvement stores. They are designed to go under washing machines so they are large and shallow. To remove the accumulated water I just vacuum it out with a shop vac. It’s not the most elegant design but it work well.

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More free-range options

Another trick to help minimize water from spraying everywhere is to cover the back (and sides, if you wish) with plastic. Shower curtains work well for this. Doing this also helps with humidity.

Once the basic design is set, it’s just a matter of trial and error to make sure everything is working properly; temperatures and humidity are on point and the extra water from misting lands in the drainage pans.

Because I had very large free ranges I used ReptiSun 10.0 lights to ensure maximum coverage. I also had several basking areas with a range of temperatures so the chameleons could choose where they were comfortable.

Keys to Success

While we’ve discussed the risks, there are ways to minimize those and provide a safer environment for your chameleon.

  • Research and find people that have successfully maintained a free range to ask questions.
  • A separate room that can be chameleon-proofed with a door that closes is ideal.
  • Be sure to monitor your temps and humidity and adjust as needed.
  • Keep only one chameleon to a free range.
  • Keep other pets away from free ranging chameleons
  • Make sure other people living with you are aware of potentially wandering chameleons. Watch where you step!

Because I understand the risks and the work involved, I can’t say I would recommend free ranging for everyone but with a bit of planning and preparation you can create a relatively safe environment that both you and your chameleon to enjoy.


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