Chameleon child

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To an 11-year-old boy, the ad in the back of the fishing magazine looked too good to be true:

Mated pair of chameleons, terrarium, food (mealworms) - $14.95. Guaranteed to arrive live.

To his mother, the ad looked perhaps too true to be good.

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Max worried that with no phone number listed, and the suspicious name "Leapin' Lizards," this might be a scam. What if the shady pet purveyor cashed our check but reneged on the reptiles?

My worry was diametrical to his: What if "Leapin' Lizards" was a five-star member in good standing with the Nowhere, Texas, Chamber of Commerce and was true to its word?

My son decided to sleep on it - literally. When I woke him in the morning, I found the drool-moistened magazine on the pillow, under his cheek. But the night's rest had not dampened his enthusiasm.

He began the day by executing a well-planned verbal offensive: Chameleons would teach him to be responsible, bring him oneness with nature, and hoist our home out of its entertainment doldrums - all for a mere $14.95.

I batted back defensively: There was a neglected dog on the back porch just waiting to teach someone responsibility, and the weedy garden south of the house could provide a close encounter with nature for a boy with a hoe. Furthermore, if five warm-blooded siblings didn't generate enough amusement around here, I had doubts about the fun-and-frolic contribution we could expect from a couple of cold-blooded lizards.

For two weeks Max amassed funds and sweet-talked his mother. Together we contemplated the role chameleons might play in our lives - and we in theirs.

What provisions are needed to keep chameleons fat and happy? What does one do with fat and happy chameleons?

When our negotiations reached rock bottom, Max resorted to slimy propaganda techniques:

"What's the worst that could happen, Mom?"

I had to think long and hard about that. Which is less appealing: opening a box of dead lizards - or live ones? Running out of mealworms - or being overrun with mealworms? My son's worst-case scenario (losing $14.95) sounded almost pleasant. So it was this line of persuasion he slyly advanced, assuring me that "Leapin' Lizards" was certain to be a rip-off and that after this sure-to-fail attempt, he would never again shop from the back of a magazine. Somehow, this persuaded me to let him place an order. Then I smugly settled in to wait for the chameleons not to come.

For nearly six weeks the saga unfolded in my favor. Each day's mail brought credit-card offers and more fishing magazines - but no chameleons. However, as we avoided my worst-case scenarios, we were living my son's. And as he lost hope, I lost hubris and found myself beginning to wish for lizards, live and mated (whatever that meant).

So by the time the FedEx man arrived at my door with a box stamped "Live Animals," I greeted him as if he were Ed McMahon holding the megacheck. And when Max sifted through the shredded newspaper that had buffered the lizards through their Texas-to-Iowa trek, I nearly squealed with delight (well, I nearly squealed). The chameleons were alive - and smiling, so it seemed. (According to the enclosed literature they were not actually chameleons, but anoles - small Southwestern lizards that are happiest in a terrarium much larger than the one included "free" with our purchase.

Our friendly reptiles do indeed change color, from dark brown to bright green, and can be coaxed out from between piano wires with the gentle nudge of a spoon handle. (We've since read that anoles prefer not to be handled, a fact that has inspired us to a laissez-faire lizard policy, greatly reducing their opportunity for piano expeditions.)

Mealworms, we've learned, keep indefinitely in the refrigerator, next to the mayonnaise.

So now, after purchasing a $10 anole-care book, $25 terrarium, $11 lamp (they like the warmth), and $2 spray bottle (to quench their thirst the lizard way), I'm down $48 to my son's $14.95. But he was right about the entertainment value: Each day, in a 15-second commune with nature, as I spritz my little friends with morning "rain" and toss them another mealworm, I concentrate on how much fun I'm having. Meanwhile, my son has been toting around a catalog that sells peacocks.

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