On World Lizard Day we’re reintroducing you to Chloe, a companion from “Friend” contributor Malcolm Welshman’s childhood!
This article was first published in “The People’s Friend” in Special 188.
I spotted her outside my bedroom window, swaying along a branch of bougainvillea, below a bower of purple blooms.
In Bournemouth, it would have been a surprise. But not here, in Ibadan, Nigeria, where my father was stationed on a two-year Army secondment, and where I was visiting my parents during the Christmas school holidays.
I was used to the constant parade of animals that lived around and at times invaded my parents’ Army bungalow. Wildlife was always there, small or large, in the tropics.
This time it was something small, about the size of my hand. Something I hadn’t seen before. A chameleon.
During the rest of my three-week stay in Nigeria that chameleon made a delightful companion to whom I could wake up and say “Hello” each morning. I called her Chloe.
There was no mistaking Chloe’s characteristic features
There was no mistaking Chloe’s characteristic features: the head with the bulging, fused eyelids from which each pupil peeped out of a pinhole; the prehensile tail coiled under like a spring; the feet, each with two pads, that squeezed together like pincers, giving a vice-like grip to branches and vines.
Not wishing to part company, I persuaded my parents to let her fly home with me. They reluctantly agreed and I brought her back to the UK, smuggled in a large OXO tin, the lid perforated with holes.
During the journey the tin was tucked inside a BOAC flight bag, crammed under my seat.
My auntie, with whom I was living at the time while attending the grammar school in Bournemouth, was delighted when I arrived at her house and unzipped my flight bag to give her a present of a bird carved from a cow horn.
The tip of the horn was the tip of the bird’s beak, the base its feet.
“How kind,” she said hesitantly, rolling the crudely carved bird in her hand.
“Oh, and something else?” she added as I slid the stock-cube tin on to her kitchen table.
“Chloe,” I said as I carefully levered the lid up.
My auntie’s face took on the pallor of a ghost
My auntie’s face took on the pallor of a ghost. One could safely assume the contents of the OXO tin were not the “stock” she’d been expecting.
I was diligent in ensuring I set up the right quarters for Chloe – a terrarium with all the trimmings fit for a lizard that had travelled 3,000 miles from the comforts of a sweet bower of bougainvillea.
Now it had landed up, unfortunately, in the dingy, draughty stairwell of my auntie’s house – for that was where she decided Chloe had to reside. Illumination was via a small fluorescent light, heat an infra-red lamp and humidity a dish of water.
Branches from my auntie’s apple tree provided perching places and vegetation from her garden the hiding places – a clump of primulas; some pansies; strands of ivy torn from the garage wall. Not quite a tropical paradise, but the best I could do under the circumstances.
I made sure I did my research
Nutrition was to be an important factor. I made sure I did my research to ensure Chloe’s dietary requirements would be met. Herein lay a problem. Chameleons like live food and Chloe was no exception. We were talking live locusts and grasshoppers. Flies. Mealworms. Each with the potential to hop, fly or wriggle into my auntie’s living-room.
Many did, hence the occasional mealworm was discovered in a slipper, or a grasshopper on the back of the chair.
Three or four bluebottles – having hatched from the grubs I’d bought from the pet shop – forlornly droned round the room or alighted on the television screen, to parade up and down over “Coronation Street”.
Looking back, I’m not sure Chloe had much of a life.
From her quarters on the edge of our Nigerian bungalow’s veranda, she would have looked down the slopes of a garden ablaze with the orbs of orange marigolds, the clustered striped heads of pink zinnias, the crimson blades of canna lilies offsetting their dark purple leaves.
Auntie’s hallway had little to offer in comparison. A row of hooks on which were mounted a monochromatic array of winter wear – which screamed dullness as soon as you saw it.
Nevertheless, Chloe’s life ticked by peacefully enough at the foot of the stairs.
It was always fascinating to watch as she fixed her eyes independently on a fly ahead of her on a branch. Those eyes could rotate and focus separately so that they could see two different objects at the same time. One eye could be looking upwards and to the left, the other might be wandering downwards and to the right.
It meant Chloe could scan most of her terrarium for food without moving her head.
She’d stop, poised ready to strike
Once she spotted a fly, she’d creep forward, foot in front of foot. She’d stop, poised ready to strike. Then the mouth suddenly opened, tongue whipping out, lightning-fast, uncoiling from the front of her mouth to stretch and strike the fly. It recoiled swiftly with fly pinned at the tip of it, glued in place by spit 400 times more viscous than ours.
She often changed colour. Her basic hue was a mid-green, but she could turn a dark grey.
Contrary to popular belief, any changes are not attempts at camouflage, but are rather to do with controlling body temperature. The times Chloe went dark grey was when she was wanting to warm herself up, and as Auntie’s hallway wasn’t the warmest of spaces, Chloe did have her occasional grey days.
I was always careful to ensure the infra-red lamp was functioning correctly to keep her as cosy as possible.
I knew what was happening – she was ready to mate
Another cause of skin colour change is to do with communication. It is a means of letting potential mates or rivals know what’s on a chameleon’s mind. So when Chloe was suddenly enveloped in bright yellow spots, I knew what was happening – she was ready to mate.
At that point, I suddenly felt guilty. It wasn’t much of a life being stuck in Auntie’s hallway with no chance of finding a boyfriend.
I contacted our local small wildlife park hoping they might have a willing partner for her. Chloe’s luck was in. The park did indeed have a chameleon of the same species.
And yes, they’d be delighted to have her as an addition to their spacious vivarium, and allow Chloe the chance to have an admirer.
So Chloe moved house, and soon became a calmer chameleon.
Read more information about World Lizard Day here.