ASSESSING THE HEALTH OF WILD-CAUGHT CHAMELEONS

By Ardi Abate, Chameleon information Network

Stressed chameleons attempt to drink from small pools of water on the floor of their cage at an export facility in Madagascar.

Stress is a major factor that will determine the long-term survival of wild-caught chameleons. Overcrowded cages, like that shown above, are not uncommon at every step of the importation process.

The dead chameleon pictured above was one of several dead animals observed at exporters' holding facilities.

Editors Note: It is my belief that the purchase of wild-caught chameleons is detrimental to chameleons -- the individual animals as well as the species which they represent. However, for those considering the purchase of a wild-caught animal, I have provided this article (with permission from Ms. Abate) in the hopes that it will better prepare you to maintain the wild-caught animals after the purchase. Make note, however, (as Ms. Abate establishes in her article) that doing things 100% "right" still will not ensure success with an imported chameleon. Also note that many imported animals are misrepresented as "captive raised", "farmed", "ranched" or other such vague terms. When purchasing a chameleon, it is best assumed wild-caught, unless you are purchasing from a well-established breeder. -- Michael Fry

INTRODUCTION

The purpose of this article is to help buyers of wild-caught chameleons recognize the health problems that may result from transferring free-living wild chameleons into captivity. All too often I hear from chameleon owners who are distressed and perplexed by a decline in health, or the death, of an imported chameleon. Many of them were experienced in chameleon husbandry and provided adequate environments, food and water within the accepted guidelines of captive husbandry. However, the underlying causes of poor health and mortality in wild-caught chameleons may have begun long before being purchased by a new owner. We will examine some scenarios that can occur from the point in time that the chameleon was last living free, until the point in time that the chameleon is purchased by it's new owner.

Many wild-caught chameleons will not be subjected to all of the conditions described in this article and may be treated more gently and humanely at every stage of the exportation/importation process. This article is not intended as an indictment against exportation, importation or those engaged in this commerce, although I anticipate that it may be construed this way by some readers. I urge readers to view this information, some of which is speculative, in the light of identifying potential health problems and seeking timely medical treatment for newly-imported chameleons to maximize their chances of surviving as healthy captives.

LIVING FREE IN THE WILD

I observed a few free-living chameleons with obvious health problems during my two field expeditions to Madagascar. The most remarkable was a male Ch. [F.] pardalis with all but one inch of his tail amputated. This animal's tail had been run over by a passing car, according to a man who lived in the area where I found this chameleon. It appeared to have healed without incidence as the wound was quite old, and he was in otherwise robust condition. I also encountered two chameleons with wounds near the mouth, one of which was badly infected; however both appeared to be in otherwise good condition.

I also saw several chameleons with the telltale raised outlines of parasitic worms under the skin. Other species of internal parasites are not outwardly visible like subcutaneous nematodes, but it should be assumed that wild chameleons harbor many different types of parasites. These chameleons were not in poor condition either; all were in good body weight, alert and strong. According to KLINGENBERG (1993):

In general, the parasites most successful in propagating themselves are those doing the least harm to their hosts. The perfect parasite would prefer a state of mutual benefit or a symbiotic relationship with their host. Many parasitic problems in nature are self-limiting.

Nature can be swift and merciless to the weak. Chameleons that are badly wounded or diseased are dispatched quickly by predators or harsh environmental conditions. This is the reason many wild creatures are adept at masking illness and injury until they are severely compromised, and chameleons are better than most at this preservation strategy. With this in mind, we will assume that most wild chameleons that are captured for the pet trade are outwardly healthy-appearing, robust specimens at the point of capture.

CAPTURE

Chameleons are viewed superstitiously in many ways by the native peoples in their countries of origin. In my travels through Madagascar I often ask Malagasy people what they think of chameleons. The answers range from abject fear to reverence.

While these beliefs may change slightly from one geographic area to the next, one superstition seemed universal - Malagasy people do not want to touch chameleons! I got reactions ranging from wide-eyed shock and fear to uncontrollable giggling whenever I touched a chameleon or let it perch on my hand or arm. There were occasions when I asked villagers to guide me into the forests to search for specimens, but often I could not convince anyone to help me because of their fear of chameleons. Sometimes, one of the younger men would agree, but I learned quickly that I would have to instruct them on how to handle a chameleon without injuring it.

In 1996 I located a young male Parson's chameleon 15 feet high in a breadfruit tree. A young Malagasy man volunteered to bring it down so that I could measure and photograph it. He climbed to the branch, quickly pulled the poor chameleon from the branch, and before I could stop him, tossed it to the ground. After I inspected the seemingly uninjured, but visibly distressed chameleon (and recovered from my horror), my guide lectured the young man and showed him how to handle chameleons gently. We made it a point from then on to provide this instruction and give a demonstration of proper handling before we accepted help from anyone in locating chameleons. It was obvious, however, that most of them could not overcome their ingrained fear of touching chameleons.

I have not witnessed the collection of chameleons for the pet trade, but given the prevailing attitude of the Malagasy (and Africans) toward chameleons, I suspect that many of them are mishandled similarly to the Parson's chameleon in my story. Pulling a chameleon forcibly from its perch can result in bone fractures, muscle, joint, and tissue damage. Chameleons thrown to the ground from a high perch may suffer fractured bones, internal injuries or abrasions. Any swellings, but particularly of the feet, legs, ribs or backbone should be examined and x-rayed by a veterinarian to determine the extent of the damage and course of treatment.

Children may capture chameleons for the pet trade as a means of earning income and hold them for a period of time until the exporter comes around to collect and pay for them (FREED, 1998). It is unlikely that these animals are handled gently or kept under acceptable conditions, which may result in stress, dehydration, malnutrition or injuries.

Probably the most detrimental health aspect of capture is the resultant stress on a chameleon. The point of capture sets the stage for a multitude of health issues related to the long-term effects of stress. Stress can lower resistance to disease by suppressing the immune system. Stress also depletes stores of corticosterones (hormones that handle stress in the body) and reduces reproductive hormones to near zero levels. A stressed reptile will not and cannot reproduce (KLINGENBERG, 1993).

TRANSPORT TO THE EXPORTER'S HOLDING FACILITY

Chameleons may be collected in remote areas and transported to an exporter's holding facility hundreds of miles away when enough chameleons have been collected to comprise a shipment. In Madagascar we shot video footage of chameleons being placed in small cloth bags which were then tied shut and placed in a large cardboard box, layer upon layer, until the box was filled. This Malagasy collector lived in Sambava and the chameleons were destined for an exporter in Tamatave, necessitating air shipment.

Since no international flights originate in Tamatave, these chameleons would then have to be shipped by air to the capital of Antananarivo to be exported to foreign countries. There are no air-conditioned facilities at most of the airports in Madagascar and no temperature-controlled cargo holds on the smaller planes, which likely results in mortality due to heat stress during the hotter months of the year for chameleons packed for shipment in this fashion.

In the small airport in Maroantsetra, I saw two boxes labeled "Live Animals" destined for Antananarivo sitting on the tarmac in the open on a very hot day. I asked to inspect the contents of these boxes, and with the permission of the Mayor and Chief of Police, found twenty Uroplatus fimbriatus packed as I have described above. These leaf-tailed geckoes had been collected illegally and were released that day in a protected nature reserve.

It is impossible to estimate how many days or weeks from the point of capture this stage of the process may entail, but the stress of being shipped under the conditions I observed is undoubtedly detrimental to chameleons and likely results in significant mortality due to injury, suffocation, or overheating. In addition, the adverse effects of water and food deprivation and injury can occur to chameleons held over periods by collectors with inadequate facilities.

THE EXPORTER'S HOLDING FACILITY

I toured three exporter's facilities in Madagascar in 1996 and 1997. The conditions varied in each one, and my observations were as follows:

  1. One facility was a large, open fenced field. Chameleons were kept in three large pens surrounded by sheet metal fences that prevented escape. Inside the pen were dead branches and dried palm fronds. Sections of bamboo on the ground provided shallow pools of drinking water. There were approximately 100 live Ch. [F.] pardalis from many geographic regions, Ch. [F.] verrucosus and Ch. [F.] oustaleti and 10 - 20 dead chameleons in each pen on the day I was there. The temperatures in November in this area were approximately 100F [38C] and the dried palm fronds provided the only shade available for these chameleons. There were several chameleons crowded into the smallest scrap of shade to escape the heat. I politely informed the exporter that the chameleons needed shade and water and that they appeared to be severely dehydrated. "There is no shade for them..." he said "...and besides, they will all be shipped out to America next week". These chameleons were dehydrated and thin. Those that survived exportation would require veterinary examination, intensive rehydration therapy, treatment for parasites and nutritional support. The long-term effects of dehydration can include kidney failure.

  2. In the second facility, chameleons are kept in wire-screened cages with concrete floors and dead branches for perching. The majority of cages were littered with fecal droppings, increasing the risk of parasite transmission and bacterial disease. There was no drinking water delivery system evident. The climate in this region is too hot and dry in summer, and too cold in winter for some species that were being held. When I visited there was adequate shade in most, but not all of the cages, and there were signs of dehydration in a few specimens, particularly the C. p. parsonii. Multiple chameleons of both sexes were overcrowded in these cages and there were a few dead and dying chameleons on the ground. It should be remembered that chameleons are asocial and usually will not comfortably tolerate the presence of other chameleons. Forced cohabitation in overcrowded enclosures elevates stress significantly and may result in injury from bites and scratches. Chameleons showing signs of injury from rough cage wire such as broken or amputated claws and toes, swelling, lacerations, bite marks or abrasions should be examined and treated by a veterinarian.

  3. The third facility had many well-designed, spacious, and heavily planted enclosures, although there were several rows of cages that were inadequate. This facility is open to the public for tours. For the most part, the animals I saw were in good condition, well nourished and hydrated. Six C. p. parsonii in one enclosure were in only fair condition - one large male lay dying on the ground and two other specimens appeared thin and possibly dehydrated. There was no drinking water delivery system evident. Insects were gathered by local children and provided to the chameleons in sufficient quantities to maintain adequate body weight. In my opinion, chameleons held in this facility for a short period under the conditions I observed in 1996 might not experience a significant decline in overall health, except for the ill effects of stress from captivity and low-level dehydration. Recent reports (1999) on this facility indicate that the current population may be overcrowded.
SHIPPING TO FOREIGN COUNTRIES

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) govern the packing and shipping regulations for chameleons arriving in the United States. Chameleons are listed on CITES Appendix II, which also governs how animals must be shipped. This is an area that has received a good deal of attention in the past year due to proposed changes to shipping regulations by the USFWS. One of the proposed changes stipulated that exported animals be examined by a veterinarian and certified healthy before they were shipped. In my opinion, this would be very difficult to achieve meaningfully in most countries. In underdeveloped countries like Madagascar it would be nearly impossible due to the lack of trained veterinarians and the financial resources for managing a program like this. Consequently, there is no veterinary inspection of chameleons that are shipped into the U.S. and it is unlikely that will occur in the future.

Upon arrival in the U.S., U. S. Customs or the USFWS inspect the shipments to verify that the numbers of specimens and the species match the CITES permits and that they have been shipped humanely. Legal action against the importer may result if the animals are dead or in poor condition. I have heard sporadic horror stories concerning the condition of some shipments in which mortality was very high. Delays in shipping, temperature extremes and the stress of being enclosed in a shipping container can have devastating effects for those chameleons whose health has already been compromised by poor management while in the care of collectors and exporters after capture.

THE IMPORTER'S OR WHOLESALER'S HOLDING FACILITY

I believe many importers work diligently to salvage as many chameleons in these shipments as possible. I observed one shipment of several hundred chameleons from Madagascar being tended to by an experienced importer. The chameleons were provided with copious dripping water and many lapped the water eagerly. A number of these chameleons were in poor condition. This importer did not have adequate room to house each chameleon singly. Each species was overcrowded in cages that still contained feces from the former inhabitants.

I saw another newly arrived shipment shortly after it was unpacked. This importer/retailer crowded more than eighty chameleons from Cameroon in a dark, glass-walled enclosure about five feet square. There was a strong odor in this enclosure and many of the chameleons did not have a branch to perch on. Some of the chameleons were thin and bore wounds and scratches.

Many importers sell their chameleons wholesale, others sell wholesale and retail. Wholesalers may keep chameleons a very short period of time before they ship them out to retailers, like pet stores. Some wholesalers attempt to rehabilitate the animals and assess their health status before they are shipped to retailers. Part of this rehabilitation may be to administer anti-parasitic drugs, typically fenbendazole (Panacur) and metronidazole (Flagyl). It is not common practice for importers/wholesalers to have individual chameleons tested by veterinarians for the presence of parasites via fecal, sputum and blood analysis. While Flagyl and Panacur are effective against a fairly broad range of parasites, there are many parasites that are not eliminated by these two drugs. All imported chameleons should have a fecal analysis performed by a veterinarian at a minimum. Blood tests and physical examinations should also be performed to determine the presence of blood-borne and subcutaneous parasites and the proper course of treatment prescribed by a veterinarian. Periodic follow-up exams are highly recommended.

THE RETAILER'S FACILITY and THE BUYER

Once chameleons arrive in the retailer's facility, they are available to the public for sale. Unfortunately, many pet stores do not have the knowledge or appropriate setups to maintain chameleons and are unprepared to provide buyers with proper enclosures or supplies, or educate them in the proper care of chameleons. By now, those chameleons who have survived being captured, held by the collector, shipped to the exporter, held by the exporter, shipped to the importer and finally, to the retailer, may well have experienced long term food and water deprivation, injury, inappropriate temperatures, exposure to pathogens in unhygienic environments, and the stress of being handled by humans, enclosed in bags and boxes, and attacked by other chameleons in overcrowded enclosures.

The parasites harbored with no apparent ill effects by the free-living wild chameleon take on a different dimension under these conditions. Parasite loads may increase dramatically, causing life-threatening, and irreparable damage to the stomach, small and large intestine, esophagus, organs and lungs. This can result in organ obstruction, loss of nutrients, blood loss, tissue destruction and the introduction of bacteria (KLINGENBERG, 1993). DR. KLINGENBERG (1993) wrote:

Captivity-induced stress tends to change the balance of the host/parasite relationship, which can result in disease. Such stress factors include crowding, inadequate heat or light, poor hiding areas (lack of security), substrate problems, altered diets, etc. All these factors suppress the immune system of the host and make the individual more susceptible to the effects of infestation.

To summarize, I sincerely believe captivity and captivity-related stress to be responsible for parasite infestations, self-limiting in nature, becoming pathogenic (disease causing) in captivity.

Because of the risk factors associated with captivity and the availability of relatively safe and effective compounds to treat both internal and external parasites, it has become my practice to eliminate all parasites in captive specimens. I feel we owe it to these captive creatures, who depend on us for their care, to eliminate the possibility of parasitic disease as a stress factor in their lives.

The buyer, unaware of what may have recently transpired in the life of the brilliantly colored chameleon pacing nervously in the pet store, buys what they may believe to be a healthy animal. As proof of health, sellers routinely assure buyers that a chameleon has been deparasitized and is eating. The new owner takes their chameleon home with high expectations that it will thrive and even reproduce. Under the best of conditions, a veterinarian examines the chameleon and minor health problems are treated successfully. Unfortunately, even these chameleons may fail to thrive due to maladaptation.

In my own experiences with several wild-caught chameleons a pattern began to emerge. I found that during the first few weeks to a month most chameleons consumed food eagerly and appeared alert and robust. Many looked comfortable, but wary in their new environments, however there was little other cause for concern from outward appearances. I have dubbed this the "honeymoon" period.

While it does not occur in every case, the next stage seems to determine whether or not the chameleon survives. Food intake often ceases and the chameleon appears depressed or nervous, and may pace the perimeter of the cage. It is at this crossroad where the chameleon either seems to accept captivity and continues life, or begins a downward spiral to death. I believe this to be the essence of maladaptation. Those chameleons that simply cannot tolerate their loss of freedom coupled with human interaction, or whose health has been irreparably damaged by the rigors of being transferred into captivity simply waste away. Probably the single most critical factor in maladaptation is the level of prolonged stress the chameleon has endured from the point of capture.

Reproductive females are more adversely affected by the rigors of captivity than males in my experience. I generally hold out little hope for the long-term survival of newly imported gravid females (if they are gravid at the point of capture or shortly thereafter), their eggs or offspring. I give most wild-caught male chameleons that are not visibly compromised about a 25% chance of expiring within 6 months to a year because of the possibility of maladaptation.

For chameleons with visible signs of ill health such as sunken eyes, serious injuries, bacterial or fungal infections, malnourishment, feeble grip, and heavy parasitic infestations, the prognosis is very poor.

"Nosey", a male Ch. [F.] pardalis shows signs of trauma which may have resulted from rough handling during capture, or from improper housing after being collected from the wild.

A CASE STUDY

The Life with Chameleons story by Bianca Rice in CiN Journal No. 29 chronicled her experiences with an imported male Ch. [F.] pardalis she named "Nosey". This chameleon had been rescued from being euthanized in a pet store due to declining health by Bianca and her friend Mary Ellen McLoughlin, a veterinarian. Nosey's initial health problems were serious:

Dr. McLoughlin pursued an aggressive course of therapy for these health problems and gradually this chameleon was brought back from the brink of death. Recently, I received a follow-up letter from Bianca on Nosey's current condition. She wrote that he had developed a swelling on his lower jaw, edema, and that a blood test indicated that there were cellular abnormalities, anemia and elevated phosphorus levels. X-rays showed "...that an area on his back, that had always had a dime-sized discolored scar was in fact surrounding a broken spine. Perhaps this occurred upon capture." The photograph with the letter shows other scars on this chameleon on the rear leg and flank.

SUMMARY

Wild-caught imported chameleons usually carry a much lower price tag than captive-raised chameleons. However, if the imported chameleon you purchase requires several courses of treatment for medical problems, the veterinarian costs may well run two to three times the original price of the chameleon.

Avoiding veterinary care and medical treatment may cost the chameleon it's life, which will certainly cost the owner their original investment in purchasing the chameleon. Here are some suggestions for safeguarding the health and longevity of a newly imported chameleon:

  1. Purchase imported chameleons from reputable sellers who offer a guarantee if you are dissatisfied with the chameleon, it is diagnosed by a veterinarian with serious health problems, or dies. Ask the seller how many days you have to make a determination before the guarantee expires. Remember that it may take several days to receive the results of some diagnostic tests. Understanding the seller's guarantee is especially important if you are purchasing a chameleon by mail order.

  2. Do not purchase chameleons with visible signs of ill health unless you are prepared to accept what may be a significant financial responsibility for veterinary care. For example: A recent treatment on a male Panther chameleon for the surgical removal (requiring anesthesia) of a heavy infestation of subcutaneous nematodes was $250.00. Three weeks later it is apparent that there are additional nematodes under this animal's skin and he will require additional treatment (cost to be determined). These treatments may have to be repeated 3 - 5 times to eliminate this parasitic infestation.

  3. Make an appointment as soon as possible after purchasing a chameleon with a veterinarian that specializes in reptiles for a physical examination and a fecal analysis, at a minimum. The examination may indicate that other diagnostic tests are advisable. Pursue the optimal course of treatment for all health problems. Get follow-up examinations every 3 - 6 months, even if no health problems are detected in the initial exam. (For information on veterinary care, review the article in CiN Journal No. 30.)

  4. Quarantine the new chameleon until diagnostic tests are completed and any health problems are treated and cured. Do not allow contact between the new chameleon and any other chameleons in your collection during quarantine, including mating. Disinfect your hands, food bowls and any utensils that come in contact with the quarantined chameleon. Do not recycle uneaten food from the quarantined chameleon's enclosure to another chameleon. Do not house more than one chameleon in a cage during quarantine. (For information on quarantine and infection control, review the article in CiN Issue No. 16.)

  5. Observation is critical in the daily assessment of the health of wild-caught chameleons, but keep physical handling and traffic in the chameleon's visual range to a minimum. Provide ample drinking water and ensure the chameleon is drinking. Keep records of food and water consumption on a daily basis.

  6. Large, airy, well-planted cages may help new captives acclimate. Chameleons that constantly butt against the walls of their enclosure attempting to escape may do serious damage to themselves in addition to the high levels of stress they are experiencing. Use soft mesh or PVC-coated wire for these chameleons.

  7. Consult a veterinarian immediately if :

I have acquired a number of wild-caught chameleons over the years. The majority of these chameleons adapted well, did not have life-threatening health problems, and with a little persistence, parasites were eliminated. Unfortunately, I can remember vividly the ones who did not adapt and succumbed to serious health problems exacerbated by the stresses of captivity.

I urge everyone to provide the benefit of veterinary care to all chameleons, and to give special consideration to the wild-caught chameleons who sacrificed their freedom in the wild in exchange for the joy and wonder they bring to their human caretakers.

Opposing views, observations, questions and comments are welcome. Please call (858) 484-2669 or write to CiN, 13419 Appalachian Way, San Diego, CA 92129, email: CHAMNET1@aol.com.

(c) 1999, Ardi Abate, Chameleon information Network. Copies of this article may be reprinted from this website by permission of the author and the Chameleon information Network.