Free-Ranging - The Risks and Benefits


A free-range (FR) is typically something you associate with poultry, but the term has found its way into a growing, alternative trend on how to keep chameleons. In this blog I talk a lot about the best screen cages to use and how best to set them up, but few people know that for over a year my chameleons had the run of their own room (and part of the living room) in what was a huge FR.


The idea consists of housing chameleons without cage walls, allowing them relative freedom to move about but still providing all their husbandry needs. This means that they still need their correct lighting, access to water, and food but without the cage walls. Many chameleons do incredibly well with this set-up, including but not limited to wild caught chameleons and large chameleon species (like Meller's, for example, who fit into both those descriptors.)

One side of my free-range room, with Cerberus the Ambilobe hanging out. 
However, there are downsides to this style of chameleon keeping, so I will do my best to provide an honest assessment of the benefits and downsides to free-ranging and how to deal with the bad.

THE GOOD

1. Chameleons tend to respond really well to not being caged. Even very aggressive, terrified chameleons usually relax and become more comfortable with people when they do not feel trapped/cornered in a cage. The great people at The Chameleon Farm have a blog where they explain  how to raise social chameleons, which includes free-ranging first and foremost. Their methods are amazing and I highly recommend checking it out. 

Cobalt and Daedalus eating from the cricket bin together.
2. Depending on the size of the FR, a large one allows them to exercise more, which lets them maintain a healthy weight and muscle tone. Obesity in chameleons is bad, and usually leads to problems with their liver eventually.

3. It lets them regulate their needs better. By not being trapped under a light all day long, they are able to choose whether to be under the heat light or the UVB bulb throughout the day.

4. You see a much more natural range of behavior and (dare I say it...) lots of personality. It seems that more space really brings out the full behavior spectrum of a chameleon, with all their quirks, weird little habits, and favorite activities. Males that would have fought otherwise forged "friendships." 

THE BAD

1. You cannot set food items free in the cage for them to catch. You have to get used to either cup or hand feeding. So get used to (or get a set of tongs for) holding those bugs! And get used to the idea of a few of them escaping every so often from your grasp (or their mouth) and running around your home. Roommates may not be happy about this.

2. You have to hang the lights from the ceiling or something very tall. So making holes in the ceiling of a home you rent may not be a great option. But you don't want the chameleon climbing up the cord, onto the light, and burning himself. So I usually screw something into the ceiling from which I can hang my lights and then tape the cord along the wall, so no one can climb up.

See how the lights hang from the ceiling. And the metal
frame for the misting system.
3. Figuring out how to provide water is a huge pain. I know other people who come up to their chameleons with a dropper full of water and their pets will just drink from the dropper, but what happens if you don't have the time to sit there (chameleons are slow drinkers) or your chameleon isn't trusting? I've had to make frames that go over the FR so I can rig up the misting system or dripper.

4. Figuring out how to collect the mist/drip water is a bigger pain. You'll definitely have to get creative, or you'll end up ruining your floors. My solution was to turn my cage drainage tables into stands for my free range plants, and double as the drainage:  How To Make A Drainage Table

5. Even if you provide everything your chameleon needs to be happy, you may still have one that wanders. Whenever they get off the FR they are putting themselves in danger, so you may have to make a little barrier around the FR, or block off the room, so they cannot escape and get lost in the house. (Although thankfully they do not hide under fridges or couches, but you may find them asleep on a coat in the closet.)

A great idea to make a FR safer and keep them from wandering away into an unsafe area is to make a little smooth wall that they can't get over. One way to do this would be to take sheets of stiff acrylic, for example, cut them so they are taller than your chameleon is when standing, and make a fence around the FR perimeter. Glue or secure the pieces along the outside, so they can't climb up hinges or glue tracks. Something like the idea below:



THE UGLY

1. Free-ranging can be very dangerous. Pets (especially cats) are a huge risk, as are small children, electrical wires, sharp objects, etc. You have to carefully chameleon-proof the room they are in and then be very diligent about keeping other pets away. And then you have to be careful to check where you're walking, that you don't run them over with the door coming into the room, that you don't leave windows open, etc.

Another view of the large FR room. You can see the canopy I had to make to support the misting system
and to give them more surface area to climb. It was a cheap PVC frame, built in a hurry. Ugly as sin but functional.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

How many panthers can you spot in this photo? 
I know that the negatives are longer than the positives. You may be wondering, why bother to go through all the trouble? The answer is that if it's simply not feasible for you and your situation, then don't. They'll be probably just as happy in a very large cage, where they are safe, accounted for, and everything is confined. But for those who don't have cats/dogs, perhaps have a spare bedroom, only have one or two chameleons, and are looking to keep them in a more natural way then this might be an option worth looking into. 


I free-ranged my entire gang for a year, and observed such amazing behavior from all of them. I saw them make friendships with unlikely partners (for example, two panther males became the best of friends). I saw how each one marked a territory within the room for himself, and they all respected each other. They would take turns eating from the feeding station or just share, depending on their mood. I saw them really communicating with each other via body language and settling disputes peacefully. It really was fascinating. 

However, I did have to constantly check on them to make sure everything was ok, they were all still there, and find the one who maybe had wandered away looking for more food. It was more stressful than knowing they were each in their separate cages, safe and sound. And when I moved I decided to just make them each very large cages to live in.

But I do have plans to do it again when I am in a home where it is feasible again. With a little pre-planning and some ingenuity it's an amazing way to keep these animals. 

Ambilobe and Nosy Be males became best friends. They'd drink off of each other. 
Daedalus, one of my panthers, was raised in this free range outside on my lanai.
He started at 3 months of age here and did extremely well, growing like a weed, and
had no problems eating from a cup or from my hands. 

How To Make A Drainage Table


Something that people never talk enough about to new keepers is the problem of what to do with all the water you're spraying into your cages. As a new keeper, you read about the importance of providing lots of water, whether it's sprayed or dripped, for how long, how often, whether you should filter or not, etc. But very little is said about what you're supposed to do with all the water that is now pooling on the bottom of your cage and running out over the sides, ruining you nice wood console table and the carpet.

Some people try to cope by laying down towels, paper, or Shamwow rags. This works at first, until you get so tired of changing them out daily that you dread having to mist the chameleon. Others try to set the cage over a storage bin, so the water collects in there. Until you realize that neither you or the chameleon enjoy having you lift the cage off of the bin to dump out every day. So in the end, people end up misting for very short bursts of time or relying more on a dripper (which can drip into a Tupperware container on the floor of the cage.)

Long story short, people get tired of dealing with inefficient ways to deal with the water, they end up dreading or postponing misting their chameleon, or both. In my opinion, the best way around this is to roll up your sleeves, bring out that ol' toolbox, and make something custom to meet your needs. My personal solution was to make drainage tables. I've made several over the years, some better than others, and by now I have the process down to a science. I will go over a few of my designs below. 

ATTEMPT #1 - Mediocre but Functional

My first attempt at building a table with completely mediocre, as was everything about my first chameleon set-up, many years ago. This cage belonged to my only chameleon at the time, a water-needy Jackson's chameleon. I didn't even have my automatic misting system back then, and used the shower curtain to contain the spray and to keep humidity up. Also, I didn't have the tools and experience I do now, so the table was very poorly built (and sealed.)

The cage sat on 4 bricks, and the water ran onto the table and down a hole
into a bucket underneath. 
The table had several fatal flaws. For one, I underestimated at the time how much silicone and sealant I should apply to anything coming into contact with this much water. The table was essentially rotten about 4-5 months later. Additionally, because the table had no slant, the water pooled in the corners and made decay happen faster. Do not make the mistakes I made!

Total Cost: ~$30.  

ATTEMPT #2 - Much Better!

After the previous colossal failure, my roommate and I sat down and drew out better plans. He was an engineer, so he helped me get the measurements perfect and helped with the cutting of the new wood. This time I wanted two separate tables, where two large screen cages (base measurement of 2' x 2') would sit, side by side. At this time I had four chameleons and four cages. 

Top of one drainage table, with wood bars removed. The entire sheet of shower liner sloped towards the hole in the center, with was very carefully siliconed. 
The table was made taking a solid sheet of wood (over 2' x 4') and nailing on 6 legs. Then 6" wide planks were nailed to the sides, vertically. At this point, we nailed the large PVC shower liner sheet (from Home Depot) to the sides and to the center hole. Then, 2" bars of wood were nailed over the PVC sheet edges, securing the sheet but also making a level. Additional bars of wood were cut to fit exactly the width of the inside of the table to fit on the level, so everything on the table would be flush. 

This "grill" of wood bars would form the base upon which the cages would sit. The bars could be moved around depending on where I needed them, and then any water that fell from the cages would fall straight down onto the plastic sheet, where it was funneled out quickly and effectively. 

The bars of wood that form the "grill" of the cage were bundled up in tape here for transportation. But see how they sit on the table. 
Here you can see how well the plastic was slopped towards the center. Easy to wipe clean, never leaked, never rotted.
This set of tables lasted me several years, until I wanted to re-do the room in way that looked more professional. At the end of the day, I am not a carpenter and I don't have a proper wood work space, so my tables were never going to be furniture quality. I ended up selling these tables to another local chameleon keeper.

Total Cost: ~$150 for both tables. 

ATTEMPT #3 - Adapting Pre-Made Storage

This has been my favorite set-up of all time. It didn't look quite as put together as my inspiration photo, but it came close and it allowed me to have a much more professional set-up with lots of storage that didn't look home made. 


 I went to Lowe's and picked up one large, 2' x 4' x 8' large storage shelf in grey. I comes divided into two parts, so I put them side-by-side instead and got two tables from the one shelving unit. Then I got $1 trays from Walmart and siliconed them onto the top shelf, with a hole through both. This was going to act as the catch tray for the water that fell from the cage's little holes, and would funnel it down and into a bucket. The wood bars would suspend the cages above everything.

A more thorough tutorial is here: 
My Chameleon Room and Cages

Setting up the drainage before the cages go on. 
Every 2 cages had this PVC pipe connection to lead water into a single bucket. And because the PVC was so flush against the bottom of the shelf, it could not be seen by visitors. 
The finished product (before a little more tweaking was done to clean up the extension cords, etc.)
Another photo of the finished product. 
Total Cost: $80 for the shelving unit and $13 for trays, PVC, and silicone sealant.

So be creative! Although online stores are starting to make water-collecting trays for screen cages, none of them are created in such a way as to lead the water out and away for easy disposal. Think about what you need from your drainage and figure out how to make it. Any one of these products was not overly expensive, perhaps $100 with all the materials. Well worth it if you can save your floors! (Like in my case, since I rent!)

Cost of Raising A Small Panther Clutch

When I had my clutch of panthers, I planned on documenting exactly how much money I spent on raising them, to give people an idea of how much money it takes to raise a clutch of panthers. However, my clutch went from 23 eggs to only 9 hatchlings, so the numbers would have been more realistic had the clutch not been so little. But you can tentatively assume that if it takes a certain number to raise almost 10 hatchlings, it would take about double to raise twice as many chameleons. 

Two month-old panther chameleons on their small ficus tree. 
*NOTE: Breeding any animal takes a great deal of knowledge, experience, and preparation. No breeding should be attempted before knowing what is involved. I undertook this experience because I had the funds to do so and homes lined up for my hatchlings. There is always the chance that not all hatchlings will sell to new homes or pet stores may not take them in (which is good because they are horrible at caring for chameleons), and you will be stuck with several chameleons to keep caring for until you are able to place them in new homes (and each will require a cage after the 3 month mark to prevent fighting.)

So even if this seems affordable, please take a moment to consider the other variables that go into raising 10-50 baby chameleons. 

I will list all the expenditures below (tallied up to 3 months of age):

CAGING

1 x small butterfly cage (12” x 12” x 12”) - $15
  •  For use with hatchlings during their fruit fly phase. 
1 x large Rubbermaid storage container (60L) - $10
  •  An intermediate cage for basking outside before going into larger screen cages. 
2 x screen cages (18” x 18” x 36”) - $140
  • The final cages the remaining hatchlings went into at around their third
CAGE FURNISHINGS

Branches - free from outside
1 x small ficus - $5
3 x small pothos - $7.50
  • I find that the best place to get plants from is a local nursery. Their prices tend to be better than at a Home Depot or Lowe's and their plants are usually in better shape. I think ficus plants are benefit of growing really quickly and giving chameleons large leaves to hide behind. 
LIGHTING

2 x basking light (40w) - $6
2 x basking light fixture - $16
0 x UVB lights
  • The babies received hours of natural sunshine daily for first few months.Had the weather been bad or had I not been available to move them in and out throughout the day, I would have purchased a Reptisun UVB bulb for about $15-20 on Amazon.com. 

FEEDING

1 x fruit fly culture - $8
Roaches - from my own colony
Crickets - from my own colony
1 x extra 1,000 crickets - $20

TOTAL: About $240*

*Rounded up to allow for small miscellaneous, such as supplements, feeder gut load, etc.

I was lucky that my roach colonies were producing small enough roaches and that I was able to breed my own pinhead crickets. This is why I highly recommend that people look into breeding their own insects, otherwise the food costs would have gone way up.

I estimate that given these numbers, it would have cost me between $500-600 to raise all 23 panthers to the 3 month mark before they went to their new homes. I chose not to sell my 9 hatchlings for very much money but even so I broke even. Had I sold them for the going rate of $150-200 for a cross-locale panther, I would have made a profit (at least compared to what it cost to raise the babies, but it wouldn't put a dent into how much money I’ve invested into the parents and other chameleons I own.) 

The babies in their open Rubbermad container cage, basking outside. How many can you count?

Guinevere's Medical Log - Part II

This is (unfortunately) the continuation of this previous blog entry: Guinevere, the Meller's Chameleon - Medical Treatment Log, which documented my rescued Meller's treatment as we battled a respiratory infection, mild stomatitis (mouth rot), and an irritated eye.
Guinevere basking outside. She's lost weight since her mouth infection progressed. 


Since my last follow-up on February 15, 2013, we have had to do a second full round of Baytril to combat what we thought was the infection rearing its head again. After giving her time to respond to that treatment, without success, it was time to take her back to the vet and see what we were dealing with. By now it seemed like she had a pretty bad oral infection.

You can see how swollen her gums are and the yellow gunk
that is a product of the infection.
May 20, 2013 - Back to the vet we went, where she took a swab from her mouth and set it out to get cultured - both bacterial an fungal. By next Monday we should know what we are dealing with. In the meantime, she sent us home with an astringent mouth rinse, so that we could clean out her mouth, and a different antibiotic.

May 24, 2013 - After 4 days of antibiotics and rinsing out her mouth I am starting to see an improvement in her strength. She feels stronger and slightly more active. She has not been able to chew food on her own, so requires that I force feed her pre-killed insects. But so far so good. With the help of my father, who does a great job at gently restraining her, we have cleaned out her mouth of all the cheese-like gunk that had formed and she seems to be feeling and breathing much better. We are still providing lots of water, to keep her kidneys healthy through all this medication, and she thankfully drinks very well. We'll see what the results of the culture tell us this Monday or Tuesday. 

May 26, 2013 - This morning we were able to clean out several big blobs of yellow gunk that had been hiding in the swollen folds of her mouth, as well as some really persistent ones around her gum-line and her mouth seems much cleaner. We use a Q-tip dipped in the astringent rinse to scrape out and then use some rinse-soaked gauze to really wipe down her mouth afterwards. She's still not feeling well enough to eat on her own (antibiotics tend to curb appetite anyway) but she's taking the force-feedings well and I feel her building up strength.

May 31, 2013 - Today marks day 12 of treatment. Her mouth looks significantly better. There is still a lot of swelling but her mouth almost 100% clean and she's even eating a few superworms on her own. Tomorrow we have an appointment with our vet to see where we are with her treatment and she'll hopefully have the results from the cultures ready. The fungal one has taken much longer to come back. Below are some photos of her yawning, but it gives you a great look into her mouth. The yellow in the corner of her mouth is the only gunk left from the infection, the rest of her mouth is essentially impeccable. Also, the mouths of Meller's are naturally black, so don't be alarmed by the color.




June 11, 2013 - So, we saw her vet about 10 days ago and she agreed that she looked much better and had gained 50 grams since we started this last round of antibiotics. She has not had any more medicine since then and seems to be doing much better. However, she still hadn't been showing any interest in food, so I was still force-feeding her now and then (I didn't want her to be too full, otherwise we wouldn't know if she were hungry or not). Finally, today, I put some roaches in her feeding cup, not expecting anything, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that she rushed towards the cup and quickly caught several roaches. I immediately put several more in there and she ate a few more. 

I consider this a small success! We didn't know if she would ever eat again and here she is, finally hungry on her own! I am super pleased. Hopefully this is the end of this terrible ordeal with her, I hate having to mess with her this often and I bet you she hates it too. Keep your fingers crossed for us!

Delicious adult cave roach! Sorry for the low quality of the photo, but I didn't want to bother her. 


I will keep this post updated as her treatment progresses. 

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