The shop is hiding in plain sight, kind of like a chameleon might.
This kind of joke feels tempting and trustworthy when walking into a place called Colorado Chameleon, one of a few businesses in this little strip off Chelton Road in Colorado Springs.
It’s because of the things we think we know about chameleons. No-brainer quips about “blending in” quickly arrive in our brains.
Like this joke: “Why are chameleons good in smoothies? Because they blend in really well.”
There’s the one that asks, “Why do you never drive on a highway next to a chameleon?”
Answer: “He might turn into you.”
Another one that might sound familiar: It’s about the chameleon that was lost in an airport and finally found, “after hiding in plane sight.”
Talk about chameleons and camouflage comes with an unlikely punchline: It doesn’t work like you might think.
Clashing with popular belief and most cartoon depictions of chameleons, these lizards can’t change the colors of their skin to match a chess board or flowery wallpaper or just any background.
This “misnomer,” as Chris Neeley calls it, is often addressed at Colorado Chameleon.
“So many people come in and see one,” Neeley, a co-owner, said. “And their first question is, are they gonna change colors now?”
He doesn’t mind the question. It gives him a chance to “open a conversation.” And that can lead to talking about another misnomer: That Colorado Chameleon sounds like an oxymoron. (Chameleons are mostly found in rainforests and deserts in Africa and definitely not in the mountains of Colorado.)
Neeley and Billy Bahr have spent years learning about these creatures and joined forces in 2018 to start a chameleon-focused company.
Here, there are many conversations to be had. These conversations are happening more often now that Colorado Chameleon opened its front-house showroom in early February, allowing anyone to visit.
Before, most business was done by private appointments or online. The certified breeder, likely the only one of its kind in Colorado, has carefully shipped chameleons around the country.
Bahr and Neeley are ready to share their knowledge and love for these mysterious creatures with the public, mainly the Colorado Springs community. “It’s been a dream and a goal to get to this point,” Bahr said. “And it’s still a passion project.”
For Neeley, the passion began when he was a California kid in the 1990s. He was a reptile enthusiast from a young age. Then he came across chameleons, what he calls the “apex of all cool reptiles.”
“It was how magnificent they look,” he said. “They defy what you would think is realistic.’
Neeley dreamed of buying one when he grew up. In 2004, with a job in construction, he finally bought one. The one pet sparked more obsession. He spent years learning all he could about chameleons.
Then he got a job in Colorado Springs in 2016. Based on what he knew about the climate and conditions here, Neeley figured he’d have to give up the chameleon stuff.
Two years later, he attended a Scales ‘N Tales grand opening and met a man with a shared passion. Bahr was breeding some chameleons in his townhouse.
Curiosity took over. Neeley asked, “How the heck are you doing that in Colorado?”
The answer, Bahr said, was a lot of experimenting.
For the 55-year-old, the passion began more than a decade ago. Chameleons weren’t around where he’s from in Minnesota, which Bahr reminds people is called the “icebox of the nation.” That’s one reason he moved to Colorado.
“When I first saw one, I thought it was fake,” Bahr said of chameleons. “They were so bright and vibrant.”
It was love at first sight. He soon brought a few home.
“Six months later, I had a couple hundred babies,” he said.
The spare room of his house turned into the “reptile room.” It was good timing when he met Neeley. They moved Bahr’s collection of chameleons into the back of the shop, which still houses hundreds of the lizards of all ages. The tiny team at Colorado Chameleon tends to each chameleon with detailed care.
One member, Rebekah Ferreri, is newer to all this. She first was around chameleons as she was falling in love with Neeley.
She fell in love with them, too.
“I was not a reptile person or much of an animal person,” she said. “You just fall in love with them.”
Officially, Neeley’s fiance is the shop’s marketing director. She’s also its cheerful champion, excitedly telling visitors, “You have to hold one!”
Ferreri playfully encourages this, as she’s experienced the powers of holding one.
“I felt all my anxiety just melt away,” she said. “It’s almost like therapy. They’re so relaxing.”
This is a common experience at Colorado Chameleon. Feeling the surprising comfort of a chameleon hanging on your arm.
This isn’t just a sales tactic.
The goal is to share the love. They have big dreams for that, including educational seminars and special events.
“We want to be a hub where people can come and learn about these amazing animals,” Neeley said. “We want to create an experience, not just be a walk-in-and-walk-out shop.”
Meaning, you don’t have to be in the market for a chameleon to visit. You can visit to have those long conversations, about what chameleons eat and what they do all day and what their ecosystems should look like. You can visit to see it. They eat silkworms, among other things, so silkworms are growing in the back. You might know their tongues do that twisty thing when they eat, but you might not know how amazing it is to see it.
You can see the babies born a few hours ago and how they don’t have any color at all. And you can see the grown-up chameleons with all the colors.
Oh, right, the colors.
They are something to see. And they do change, kind of, but not because they’re trying to blend into a background. The pigmentation changes, brightens or dulls, based on what the chameleons are feeling.
“They’re like a living mood ring,” Neeley said. “They wear their emotions on their sleeves.”
At this point in the visit, it might hit: Chameleons have feelings, too.
“Once you have an interest in them, you care about their lives,” Neeley said. “That’s one important part of this.”
Another important part has to do with why a place like Colorado Chameleon exists.
“If we don’t keep them in captivity, we won’t be able to enjoy them,” Neeley said. “They will go extinct.”
This serious stuff is on Neeley’s mind a lot. But when he and Bahr walk around their shop to show off these chameleons, worries are far away.
“You remember why you first fell in love with them,” Neeley said. “And you want to see others have the same feeling.”