Yesterday, my ten-year-old son Hayden went to a reptile show two hours away in Hamburg with a friend. After much haggling, we sent him with $30--all of his own dollars--in his pocket. This included cash for a $7 entry fee to the show and a McDonald's lunch. We talked about what he was allowed to bring home to his large habitat--which already houses a green anole, a very small garter snake, a fat spotted orange slimy salamander (their real name), a pickerel frog, a firebelly toad and 10-15 Eastern Mountain newts. The night before, Hayden was hankering for a veiled chameleon. We did some more research on chameleons. We have looked into this several times over the past few years, and everything I find says chameleons are very difficult to keep, and they are definitely not for beginners.
We talked with my brother-in-law, who is well versed in the successful keeping of all things aquatic, amphibious and reptilian. Nick has created professional saltwater aquariums that included seahorses and eels, and he has built a stunning, full-wall terrarium in his office for poison arrow frogs, including a waterfall, live bromeliads, and an automatic misting system. He vouched that chameleons are something even he won't try because it is so difficult to recreate their natural habitat, and because they don't like to be seen, or handled. In fact, the successful keeping of a chameleon includes it feeling safe because it is hidden, in a quiet, leafy, humid, environment with strict temperature guidelines, three different light settings and a broad variety of insects and invertebrates to feast on. Nick told Hayden to get a leopard or a tokay gecko--easy to care for and can be tamed to handle.
You can imagine my displeasure when Hayden came home with a five-inch chameleon of unknown origin he had already named Frederick. He recited all the things the sheister who sold it to him told a gullible, big-eyed boy: that this kind was easy to keep, just needed a UVB light, a heat lamp and maybe a dozen calcium-dusted live crickets every four days. I've maintained a simmering rage all day that these traveling reptile show salesman are allowed to sell challenging and potentially dangerous animals to kids. (Hayden's friend came home with a baby NILE MONITOR--destined to grow to an aggressive eight feet! He was promised it would be friendly if he handled it frequently.)
Hayden was thrilled--he had negotiated the seller down from $30 to $21. He couldn't remember the exact species and there are over 180 different kinds of chameleons. He thought it began with an S. After much internet research, I think I am the reluctant grandmother of a senegal chameleon.
Last night was a scramble and quick fifty dollars at Petco to get a corner of our habitat temporarily livable for Frederick. As I drove home in the rain with the UVB light, the red light, the starters for the flourescent tubing, a two liter mister and a baggie of calcium-sprinkled crickets, I struggled to put my finger on my emotions. I was pissed for sure. But there was more to it.
1) Hayden brought home an (unreturnable) animal we had discussed as being too challenging for our level of reptile care
2) the swindler at the traveling reptile expo knowingly sold a ten year old rookie an animal he couldn't care for, sentencing it to fairly certain death
3) that as an animal lover, I wanted to do my best to keep Frederick alive in honor of the fact that he is an innocent reptile who didn't choose this fate
4) but (and this is the big one) was all of this in conflict with the fact that I was sending Hayden the message he could do whatever he wanted, and I would pick up the slack for his poor choices?
Frederick is still alive today. We are in the process of constructing a vertical habitat out of a cracked fish tank that will have the things he needs--UVB light and basking light by day, and incandescent light by light. We are making a false bottom out of egg grate and plexiglass to be the reservoir for a water pump and drip system that can, with the help of daily misting, keep the humidity up and provide a water source. We need more live foliage to create the privacy screening and climbing network. I have had to remind him several times not to handle him.
I have made a chart. It has 52 squares on it; they represent the money I have spent in creating this alternative habitat for our 'bargain' chameleon. Hayden has until June 1 to fill those squares by working for me to pay off Frederick, or he goes to a new home. If at any time in the interim, Hayden cries uncle, I will help him find Freddy a better life.
For my part, I will stop complaining about the error in Haybes' judgment, stop bitching about the hoodwinker who sold a chameleon to a ten-year-old. I will drive to the pet store for crickets and mealworms once a week, and keep the silkworms supplied with mulberry leaves. I will remind Hayden to mist and change the light settings. And I will do my best to keep Frederick alive, and let Hayden enjoy him.
To be fair, he's pretty darn cute. The ten-year-old Chandra might have had trouble resisting him as well.
Circling in on this, I realize...
The chameleon situation is actually a microcosm of what is to come: more and more I will have to let Hayden go out into the world with his peers, armed with nothing more than the conversations and input of the family who love him, and sometimes, he's going to come home having made a mistake. And J and I will lie in bed like we did last night, angry at the world that created this dilemma, and we will struggle to find the right choice, the teachable lesson, in the situation. We will debate how much we should rescue him, whether or not we should sweep in with a hard and heavy hand, or let him take a fall, or find a delicate compromise... When I look down the gauntlet of all the choices Haybes still has to make, I suppose I should be GRATEFUL that today we are only talking about an underfed, ill-fated, five inch chameleon.
Disclaimer: I have checked on Frederick more than a dozen times since lunch.