Free ranging, death, and what I learned

Haven't posted in a while, but wanted to share my observations and experiences with chameleon efforts.
I began with a rescue Melleri named Olive, living in New York City, who was about 3 years old. His original setup was a reptibreeze large enclosure, hooked up with all the trimmings. After he got larger, I always had the desire to give him more room to live a more active life and be the giant reptile that he was. I also hated the science project look of a lot of the enclosures I see posted here / ones I created in the past. So, I decided to build a gigantic free range system in the living room of my apartment. My chameleon lived in it for 4.5 years in this setup before ultimately passing away last night.

THE SETUP (pictures below):
I turned my full closet into an enclosure filled with live plants, all lighting and misting equipment, and dripper... I then created a bamboo and vine covered walkway along my ceiling connecting my closet, to another plant located by the window with a perch and it's own basking light / misting system for basking and to look out the window, which he did often. The room was very low traffic considering I was the only person living in the apartment and didn't have guests over often. I typically kept the room around 78degrees and 68 at night. My basking temps, drippers, gutloading / variety of feeding, and overall visible health of the chameleon was fantastic and consistent for years. Like a well oiled machine. I would feed phoenix worms, dubias, crickets, hornworms, and even tried hatching mantis eggs (which is an insanely interesting and fun experience, which I ended up not feeding because I enjoyed them so much, like many of the insects I came to love.) Like any chameleon owner I tried new things and experimented to dial in my setup to best serve my cham.

THE BEHAVIOR:

He was an extremely active and curious cham, but not very social. He tolerated my existence, but quietly despised it, and over the years became more accepting of me handling him. I would often would find him in various places around the apartment, and most frequently... he would rest in the area marked "typical location" with the red circle. I believe he sat here because it gave him the highest and widest possible view of the room for his safety and protection, and overall peace of mind.

Lifetime breakdown of locations in which I found the cham when returning home from work:

12% random locations (shoe rack by the door, by the bed, couch, on the ground roaming, hiding in the leaves in his bushes)
35% center spot on his bamboo walkway
53% under basking light​

Most of the behavior my chameleon exhibited I believe was simply to put himself in the best position for his own safety, get light by the window, or to get closer to the shower (where I would have another tree setup for him at night, in case he didn't drink from the dripper).

THE PROBLEM:

My chameleon unfortunately developed gout, which he lived with for nearly 8 months. It became increasingly severe, up until his death. How could this be I thought... I've done EVERYTHING. I've checked literally every box you could as an owner and with his setup / feeding. He has mist shooting and water dumping on the leaves around him everyday, along with a shower around 4-5 times a week. I changed out his lights every year and dusted his feeders by the book with Calcium without d3 everyday and Calcium with d3 about twice a month. All his basking spots and hangouts had lighting within proper distance of his locations.

THE ANALYSIS:

At the end of the day, I can only offer theories based on my time with this kind of setup.
I think that the 35% of time spent in the middle location of the walkway + the 12% of the time spent in random locations = 47% of my chameleons life that he spent away from UVB lighting / direct sunlight / water. I think that all of these things including hydration, calcium conversion from uvb and other possible things I might not be considering contributed to the gout and eventual death of my chameleon.

RECOMMENDED FREE RANGE:
At the end of the day, I believe that my setup, although large and very spacious for a giant Melleri Chameleon, was not what any chameleon needs, no matter how large. Natural sunlight I believe to be the best possible thing for a chameleon considering it is how they survive in the wild. In my opinion, when you are creating your own environment in a large space it is simply impossible to provide a chameleon the right balances of lighting that allows the creature to process its food and nutrients properly. In my opinion, the ideal setup is a cage simply out in direct sunlight in a warm weather climate, secondarily would be a mesh enclosure with a lighting setup to develop consistency in seasonal climates like mine in NYC. I think that although free ranging a chameleon is great, it should be done in a much more controlled manner than what I attempted to do. The name of the game to keeping chams is CONSISTENCY. I simply don't think that chameleons can discern well enough when they need UVB / hydration for the kind of setup I have to get the regular amounts they need. A controlled environment with constant exposure to proper lighting for a chameleon in a moderately sized cage would create the ideal consistency for a creature that needs these elements to survive. Although they aren't super attractive, they would've served my chameleon better despite not offering much less space. It simply couldn't establish the right consistency considering the chameleon was all over the damn place.

If you do wish to free range your chameleon: I would suggest doing so in a controlled manner in direct sunlight first and foremost, or simply when you come home from work. I would never let a chameleon have the space mine did to simply decide where he goes... I can guarantee they will not decide correctly.

Hopefully this helps someone somehow. I'm sad I lost my friend.

MY FREE RANGE WHEN I FIRST SET IT UP:
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jpowell86

Chameleon Enthusiast
I am very sad and sorry that you lost Olive. Melleri are my absolute favorite species and I hate to see one go. I do however appreciate your information. From seeing your pics of his free range I can clearly see the point you are trying to make. So basically, your observation is that making proper/necessary lighting available to your chameleon doesn't mean that they will choose to be in the areas that offer it. Based on your pic, I see that the middle area, where the lighting wasn't available, was the highest perch offered for Olive....so in hindsight, would you have put the lighting over this perch v. where they were in the pics? I really do thank you for putting your observations together for the Forum and fellow keepers to read. RIP Olive.
 

brownie64

Avid Member
Sorry for your loss, and like the others said thank you for your insight it was very informative and helpful.
 

jannb

Chameleon Enthusiast
I am sorry that you lost your Mellerii. It's always very hard to see one of these guys go. I have always free ranged my chameleons when they are inside and never had any problems related to free ranging. Chameleons do not need UVB all the time. Mine go to it when they need it. They often prefer to sit other places besides under a light. My daughter and I have been keeping chameleons since 2004. Free ranging is not for everyone that's for sure. You have to be a very responsible pet owner for free ranging to work. I believe I read a post from you a year or so, back where you tried to free range your veiled with your Mellerii and the Mellerii killed the veiled. I'll see if I can find the post.
Here it is: https://www.chameleonforums.com/threads/life-death-and-the-beauty-of-chameleon-keeping.125448/
 
Jann
Most certainly have done my fair share of experimenting. And yes, the chameleons moving at their own free will together was a poor idea, and resulted in a death that shouldn't have occurred.

Agreed, chams don't need UVB all the time. However, the time my chameleon spent on his perch or traveling kept him away from hydration, UVB, and heat. I am sharing my observations here are that
A) I don't believe chameleons can will seek out UVB lighting..... it is simply not a natural behavior. I'm glad that in your experience your chameleons have sought it out. Mine, unfortunately was not as diligent as I think he needed to be to survive considering he free ranged 24/7 with no enclosed space. My chameleon was 7+ years old, and I believe he should've lived longer. It makes it much easier when you have UVB, basking, food and water together as I did, but I still think that having these things in one small area of a huge open area for the chameleon to roam is DEAD WRONG. It just doesn't make sense if you think about what's natural.
B) I stand by my assessment that my chameleon could've lived longer with a more consistent controlled environment, rather than one left to the discretion of the chameleon. Granted, this varies based on the setup. Mine was not as successful considering there were dark / dry spots, rather than my entire free range space having uvb / consistent humidity / watering. Having a chameleon make these decisions regularly than having these elements immediately available is something I would HIGHLY recommend against.
Jann, I know you have more experience than myself and many others, but you've also experienced deaths for a variety of reasons. The intent and suggested use of my post would ideally be to better your setup and the care of your animals if at all possible.
 
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Wouldn't he poop on the couch?
Actually, my observations were that my chameleon pooped in the same place regularly in his closet where the water / food / lighting setup was. Also the majority of the lush plants. Couldn't pinpoint which of these elements created that pattern. He only pooped on the couch once with diarreah when he was feeling ill. Despite spending such a large portion of time of the middle pass location. Creature of habit certainly.
 

jannb

Chameleon Enthusiast
Actually, my observations were that my chameleon pooped in the same place regularly in his closet where the water / food / lighting setup was. Also the majority of the lush plants. Couldn't pinpoint which of these elements created that pattern. He only pooped on the couch once with diarreah when he was feeling ill. Despite spending such a large portion of time of the middle pass location. Creature of habit certainly.
Jann
Most certainly have done my fair share of experimenting. And yes, the chameleons moving at their own free will together was a poor idea, and resulted in a death that shouldn't have occurred.

Agreed, chams don't need UVB all the time. However, the time my chameleon spent on his perch or traveling kept him away from hydration, UVB, and heat. I am sharing my observations here are that
A) I don't believe chameleons can will seek out UVB lighting..... it is simply not a natural behavior. I'm glad that in your experience your chameleons have sought it out. Mine, unfortunately was not as diligent as I think he needed to be to survive considering he free ranged 24/7 with no enclosed space. My chameleon was 7+ years old, and I believe he should've lived longer.
B) I stand by my assessment that my chameleon could've lived longer with a more consistent controlled environment, rather than one left to the discretion of the chameleon. Granted, this varies based on the setup. Mine was not as successful considering there were dark / dry spots, rather than my entire free range space having uvb / consistent humidity / watering. Having a chameleon make these decisions regularly than having these elements immediately available is something I would HIGHLY recommend against.
Jann, I know you have more experience than myself and many others, but you've also experienced deaths for a variety of reasons. The intent and suggested us of use my post would ideally be to better your setup and the care of your animals.
Mellerii are a more difficult species to keep. Seven years old was a good age IMHO. I have friends that have lost them much younger, even their entire colonies in a matter of months and all three were experienced keepers, one was even a reptile vet. Did you have an autopsy to see if that showed what might have killed him? I have lost many chameleons and males mostly to old age related issues. Personally I never worry about UV because my guys gets so much outside time. I do observe them going to their lights inside sometimes and it's usually the basking light to warm up. Almost all my chameleons poop in he same spot too. Again, I am very sorry you lost your guy. It's never easy to lose one and I often blame myself reguardless of what illness they had.
 
Jann, I definitely would say the exposure to natural light does wonders for the chameleons health, and that my issues would've been lessened if not avoided completely had I had that. Unfortunately my nyc apartment didn't get too much direct light, and I gave the cham my whole living room. again, just the dark spots / constant choice for the basic needs in an isolated area is my idea of the real problem. Help me understand more if you can, tried to lay out the entire history / observations. I could be wrong here, just seems like it all adds up.

I had an amazing time caring for my meller first and foremost. Keep in mind, I was also showering the chameleon when I got home from work in the shower for 30 minutes about 4 times a week. It's a huge amount of work. No need for autopsy, the visibly large bugles from the gout on his joints was most certainly the issue. It developed, progressed, lost mobility in his hands / limbs. Until he just sat in his hanging plant basket in the closet for the last few months. I am considering getting another chameleon and going back to the traditional setup with a monitored free range session.
 

carol5208

Chameleon Enthusiast
First of all I am very sorry about the loss of your chameleon. The age of your chameleon has me a little confused though. Maybe I should not question this, but a few things just don't add up here. If Jannb had not posted your thread from Feb 2014, I guess there would not have been any questions. You stated back in 2/14 post that you had acquired your chameleon at a very early age and he had been in your care and he was now 3 yrs old at the time of the Veild incident. Then on this post you said he was 3 yrs old when you got him? You had him in the freerange for 4.5 yrs. Even if he was 3 on 2/14 post he would be 5 yrs old now. Maybe my math is wrong?? So how is your chameleon 7.5 yrs old? I am just confused. Pardon me for asking, but it just bothered me.
 

jannb

Chameleon Enthusiast
I am not that knowledgable about Mellers. My daughter did keep 3 years ago that I pet sit a few times. Two were WC and one CB. One of the WC lived the longest (3 maybe 4 years) and she had a large cage and left the door open all the time and outside the door was a free range with no lights or misting system. The lights and mistaking were inside the cage so he had to go in the cage for UV. She did give him a shower every now and then and she took him outside once in awhile. I can tell you that gout in not common in chameleons. I've never had one with gout and my daughter and her boyfriend kept 30 + chameleons at one time and she only had one that got gout. Gout is caused from over supplementing especially with D3.
 

Decadancin

Moderatoris Americanus
Staff member
I appreciate the info and the theory you have posted, and I am truly sorry for your loss. They are such amazing animals. However, I don't think that any one situation is enough to make solid conclusions from. I will agree that natural sunlight would do wonders for most chameleons, but I don't know if the observed actions of one animal are enough for any solid conclusion. It does make a lot of sense, and I may decide that more UVB bulbs and foliage to seek shelter are advisable to be on the safe side, but the free range looked awesome! My only suggestion would have been a long tube UVB above his favorite spot. that would have taken some guesswork out of the equation in the end, but gout may occur from other factors, no???
Gout is generally caused by too much protein in the diet, combined with inadequate hydration. I agree with the idea that your chameleon did not get enough hydration, but I see little if any to suggest that there was an issue with the UVB and Calcium. I'm not an expert, but that's my two cents. I'm not sure there is much you could have done to improve the longevity of your chameleon, or even to increase the amount of hydration. These animals are going to do what their bodies tell them to do (I know this is a generalization) and sometimes the "perfect" conditions are not going to make any difference.
I understand your frustration, but I would not guarantee that animals will not seek out the conditions that they desire for optimum health. This is something that far too many additional factors may influence and genetics likely have more to do with it than the choices they make.

Just my opinion, and again, truly sorry for your loss.
 

Pap

Member
Sorry about your loss... I appreciate your post though... There was a lot of good information to be taken from it... I think with all of that free range space Oliver was probably a pretty happy guy... I just recently started to add a free range to my set up for my panther... Not nearly as large as yours but I plan to have lighting in both locations... And my boy will only be allowed out under supervision... I am right below you in PA so I understand not being able to get them outside as much as we would like to... But I also plan to set up an outdoor enclosure for when summer time comes around... Again sorry to hear about your guy's passing and thank you for the observation... Will definitely keep an eye out for what you may do next.!
 

JaxyGirl

Avid Member
Hi, sorry to hear about your Cham:( he looked like a handsome boy and I'm sure he had a great life. Ive never had a Mellers but from what I hear they are a delicate mostly wild caught species that have a tough time adjusting to captivity. It sounds like you provided an awesome environment for him to live in and you gave him the best care possible. I really thought your post was really interesting and informative. Free Ranging has always been a testy subject on here.
Jannb and I have always been avid free rangers and speaking for myself have had my share of criticism.. lol!

However I do believe that free ranging can be bennificial to a Cham if the free range is set up well. I had a Jacksons Cham, Triton, that was free ranged full time his whole life and he lived to be almost 8 years old before he died of old age.

Currently, my 9 month old male Panther free ranges full time and is doing really great. He has two basking spots and three 5.0 UVB bulbs.

However, My female Panther is in a 48" reptibreeze because she didn't seem to adjust very well to free ranging as she is really timid and didn't eat or drink well in a more open environment.

Free ranging Is challenging due to lighting placement, how to give them water and food. I absolutely agree that it could be fatal to a Cham if all the above isn't addressed properly because we're taking an animal that is meant to live out-doors in the wild and trying to replicate that same environment in-doors.

My female Cham is relitively easy to take care of. Her enclosure is a controlled environment. She has a Mist King so I don't have to worry about hydration or humidity. I know the exact temp of her cage and have all the veribles under control. I know that she is always safe and sound and if a feeder gets loose in the enclosure it's captive and so is my Panther. Pretty much no worries.

My male is another story. It's a challenge Keeping the humidity up in a free range without any walls during a Maine Winter when the heat is on, Which means longer mistings and that means protecting your floors and walls from water. Also, I do a lot of hand feeding to prevent feeders from escaping and running all over the house. And yes there is poop to deal with but like others said chams pretty much pick a spot and go in the same place every time.
And the correct lighting is a huge challenge. Also Chamelion safety is a major concern.

What I do enjoy most about free ranging is the interaction between me and my Cham. It's fun to grab a cricket and just reach up and feed it to him or to scratch his side or rub him under the chin as I walk by without the constraints of a cage. He's very active and aware of his surroundings and what is going on in the house. He seems happy and healthy but only time will tell if free ranging was bennificial or not. Hopefully it is.

There are huge pros and cons about whether to cage or free range. There are many factors Involved. Can the owner provide a healthy and safe environment
for the Cham? Can the Cham adapt to an open environment and still feel safe?
I think for most people the solution is somewhere in the middle. Having a screen enclosure that the Cham lives in full time but also providing an area outside the cage where the Cham can come out and roam freely under supervision.
 

MissMaisie

Member
I free range my girl whenever I'm home and I don't think I could ever go back. She seems so much happier crawling around, in and out of her cage. Whenever I have to confine her to her cage she will spend the whole time trying to find a way out. She loves crawling up to the window to look out, she's also gotten a lot more relaxed with me and don't mind me walking around etc. Whenever I feed her or mist her I will put her in the cage where it's easier, and if she's been away from the lights for too long I'll put her in as well and she'll usually sit there for an hour. I would rather deal with the extra work than take this happiness away from her.
 
Interesting replies from all. I have to agree with everyone who is passionate about free ranging, the chams love it no doubt, and it will help them live longer. From what I got, I think that the "permanent / long term unsupervised" free range setup is a bit dangerous and I think took away from the time that my chameleon needed to be closer to his lights / water supply. I DO NOT CLAIM any of these things as facts, just observations from the years spent watching him. The bottom line seemed to be that the chameleon preferred the highest place available, which he spent most of his time at. I do not believe that he was able to discern when he needed food / water often enough considering that in the wild these things would simply make themselves available to a normal free chameleon.

I would strongly recommend a caged base camp with your lights and water and food, and letting your chameleon loose when you are present / return from work / weekends. Considering my lil base camp was open, it left the cham up to his own discretion.
 
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