That being said, each animal is an individual with his or her respective personality, and this can play a big part in how they react to you and being held. I have had some very docile, “friendly” chameleons, while I've had some very aggressive and terrified ones, so their disposition will have a big effect on how you go about dealing with them. But in my experience any chameleon can turn around and get to the point where it tolerates short handling sessions, regardless of how aggressive or scared they were when they started. I will describe how I have “tamed” some of my chameleons and offer my opinions on handling them in general.
Note: Getting them comfortable with handling goes beyond just wanting to hold your pet - this may save both of you a lot of stress if they ever need to go to the vet. Taking a hissing, biting, horrified animal to the vet to be handled and looked over is not fun for anyone. And being able to administer medicine to an animal that isn't having a breakdown is potentially life-saving.
|Daedalus (panther chameleon) at 3 months old when I first got him. I gave him a week to settle in before I started working with him. |
1. Give them time to settle in first.
When you first get a new chameleon (regardless of age), give them time to settle into their new environment before you attempt to handle. Chameleons are sensitive to changes in environment, so being brought to a strange new home (whether they were shipped to you, or you purchased them at a store or reptile show) will stress them at first. It is normal for them not to eat for a few days while they adjust to their new homes. So while they are becoming familiar with their new cage, home, and routine, I recommend that no attempts at handling occur for at least a week or two. The wait is terrible, I know, and it will be tough but it’ll be better in the long run.
2. Hand-feeding: Your best tool.
Chameleons are like men; the best way to their hearts is through their stomachs. Associating your hands (and by proximity, you) with food is one of the best ways to condition them to expect positive things from you instead of feeling fear. After your chameleon has acclimated for a couple days (say 2-3), but before you attempt to handle them, you can start trying to hand-feed. This consists of holding out a prey item (it needn’t be with your hands specifically, I have an array of different tongs and tweezers that I use with insects I don’t want to touch, like the roaches) and waiting patiently until your chameleon shoots for it out of your hand. And unless you have a particularly brave or hungry chameleon most of them will make you wait a while before they take it. This is why I recommend hand-feeding the first feeder of the day, so they are the most hungry and the most willing to take it from you.
|Daedalus, fully-grown, happy to take a tasty treat from my open palm. Especially out in the sun!|
I recommend not putting the feeder/your hand too close to them, as it may make them very nervous. I also recommend not staring intently at them, as this can make them uncomfortable. Eventually the food will peak their interest and they may finally shoot at it after they aim several times, thinking about it.
They may not go for it the first time you try, so just try once every day. Hold the food there for a few minutes and if he doesn't seem interested then stop for the day. It may take days or weeks for them to gain the trust to shoot at the food, but just keep trying and you will be successful eventually. The tastier the treat (hornworms and butter worms are a crowd favorite at my house) the more enticed they are to go for it.
3. Do not force them out of the cage, let them come out on their own on their terms.
When the time comes to handle them, the last think I think you should do is reach in to force them out, regardless of how gentle you think you’re being. To them, they are cornered in this little cage while a huge hand is coming to grab them, and then we wonder why they run away from us and attempt to hiss and bite. The best thing is to get them used to being out of the cage on their terms, with you in the room, so that they become comfortable exploring with you there.
|Daedalus, only 2 weeks after I got him, getting used to being out of the cage on his own. Very soon after this I began trying to hold him.|
I used to leave the cage door open and place a fake 6’ ficus tree in front of the cage and sit on my computer. It would take hours sometimes but eventually the chameleon would walk out on his own to explore for the first time. The second time he took a lot less, and the third time he came out immediately. Once he was comfortable being out and about on the ficus I would put my hand flat in front of him, like just another pathway. If I saw that this didn't bother him I would lift him up and let him walk over my hands for a minute before returning him. And so we went, building up trust and familiarity with being held, making the handling sessions longer and longer.
Once they were used to 1. being out of their cage occasionally, and 2. being used to me holding them for short periods of time, it became much easier to handle them. Getting them to climb onto my hand was no longer an ordeal and neither was being taken out of the cage.
4. Associate handling with good things.
To help cement handling as a positive experience, try to associate coming out of the cage with experiences they enjoy - like being taken outside to bask in natural light. Or let them roam a safe plant by the window while you work. This is the kind of thing that most chameleons enjoy or respond positively to, so they learn that every time you open the cage that you either bring food or are going to take them out for some roaming/sunning time.
|Daedalus enjoys coming outside to get some UV rays. He reaches for me to come out.|
A note on how often to handle.
Like I mentioned earlier, each chameleon is different and will react to the experience differently. Not all chameleons will become sociable creatures that claw to come out of their cage to climb your arm, but that doesn't mean that they aren't capable of a great degree of trust. I have had chameleons who I wasn't able to handle for long periods of time even after lots of time and patience, but they would very eagerly hand-feed from me. So they went from aggressive chameleons to tolerant chameleons who were comfortable with me as long as I respected their space. So each individual is different, but you can make great strides with positive reinforcement and conditioning.
Respect the signs your chameleon send you. The length an animal is out will depend on the chameleon but I recommend keeping it short and sweet. Again, respect the signs the animal is sending you.