The Chameleon

In animals, Chameleon, William Blake, Zambezi, Zimbabwe by Kate Innes

Twenty years ago in the Zambezi valley of Zimbabwe, my husband-to-be gave me a present: a small and unimpressed chameleon he had found near the clinic where he was working.  It was the first and only chameleon I have ever handled.  For some reason I could not bear to let it go straight away, and so I attempted to keep it in a cardboard box.

After encouraging it to eat stunned flies for a few days with no success, we gave up and let it go.  I think it was the unshifting look of disdain and suspicion on its face that really began my interest in the gap between human and animal experience and consciousness.

Zimbabwe certainly shone a bright light on my ideas about animals.  Whereas in the USA and UK, I had thought of them mainly as pets or as a food source, there they took on entirely new categories: instrument of death, intermittent fascinating entertainment, trophy, supernatural agent.  In gaboon vipers, hippos, black mambas, spitting cobras, lions, elephants and crocodiles, I saw many examples of Blake’s ‘fearful symmetry’.

But it is this animal, the chameleon, that has particularly stayed in my mind.  Perhaps because it was small and vulnerable and I nearly killed it, but more, I believe, because it embodied a powerful, unwavering dignity, no matter what was done to him.

The Chameleon
He stayed with us for just three days,
but still we gave a name to him
for fun, and spoke to him about his eyes,
his toes and, most of all, his skin.
We played with him, not he with us.
We said he was too serious.
We laughed at his cautious, cartoon walk.
He frowned in concentration.
Even when we let him go, we smiled
at his escape, so slow and measured.
He will be happier in that thorny tree,
where everything, big or small, is as serious as he.
Kate Innes