Wisdom: As Taught by the Sloth Gurus

Sloths are ugly. That’s a blatant lie, but a great hook.

Actually, sloths are amazing creatures, and just after completing my junior year, I had the unique opportunity to work with them directly at the Sloth Sanctuary in Costa Rica. I’d never personally seen a sloth, but I’d heard accounts of their cuteness (confirmed by the adorable videos circling around YouTube), and studied them briefly in mammalogy and ecology classes. Yet nothing could have prepared me for my first meeting with a sloth. Their curious, loving, bright, yet lethargic demeanor became immediately apparent when I entered their cages. Depending on the number of fingers and the sloth’s overall personality, I could expect any number of greetings ranging from a deluge of licks, to an excited rush to maul my face, to a sloth-hug (which, if allowed, would probably never end), or a torrent of piss to cleanse the cage for my arrival.

From an ecological standpoint, sloths are fascinating to me. Contrary to popular belief, the sloth has a similar sleeping schedule to humans and can be active both day and night. Their survival strategy is relatively unique in the world of mammals; they choose to conserve energy and avoid predators simply by doing nothing. The sloth has also developed a symbiotic relationship with algal cells contained within groves on their individual hairs (which gives them a greenish hue), and with a moth that feeds on the algae, which keeps it fresh. These relationships, along with its lethargic lifestyle, allow the sloth to avoid predation and competition by simply passing for a (cute) patch of moss on a tree. The ecologist in me could go on forever with facts and speculations about the sloth, because, frankly, the brilliance of their life-strategy utterly fascinates me. But I guess I’m just a nerd (Katie confirms).

My day began with a 5:50 AM wakeup, a cup of coffee, and a walk over to the cages for the morning feeding and cleaning. This consisted of sweeping out old food, documenting urination and defecation (sloths poop rainbows), and a water-vinegar wash of the shelves used by the sloths within their cages. This was always an adventure because we usually had to work our way around the sloths: carrying them away from the doors, pulling plates from beneath their butts, and dodging cuddles and kisses. The morning feeding consisted of beans and leaves for the sloths to munch on and I would usually spend a while in each cage hand-feeding every sloth before moving on to the next. We then had a break until 9:00 AM, during which I would fashion myself an omelet with whatever veggies I could find lying around at the time.

9:00 AM was baby time, also known as the most exciting part of the day, when each volunteer would get a baby or juvenile sloth and monitor it on a jungle gym of tree branches. The purpose of this activity was to exercise the more active babies and to help teach them proper muscle movements, though it was also a great time for them to poop. Baby time was one of the best ways to observe the uniqueness of each sloth’s personality. Some babies were fast and eager to bite unsuspecting volunteers, while others simply wanted to cling to your chest for hours and lick your neck.

After another break, which I would usually spend swinging in a hammock, playing pool, or editing pictures, we would come back to the kitchens for 11:00 AM to prepare the afternoon meal. This was my least favorite activity because it was the only sloth-free part of the day, but I did get a lot of practice peeling carrots. We would peel and cook the food to help assist the sloths in ease of digestion and energy transfer (though, I think all this food just made them want to poop more).

This lead to yet another break (we really became sloths ourselves with all these breaks throughout the day) and at 2:00 PM we finished with the afternoon feeding, the sloth-feast of the day. This consisted of a smorgasbord of carrots, mango, camote, chayote, and beans, all cooked and cut into individual sloth-sized pieces for ease of sloth ingestion. I was surprised to find that each sloth had a taste preference and would actually pass on food that they liked if a food that they didn’t like was sitting on top of it. My favorite thing to do was to hand feed them by plopping pieces of food in their mouth one at a time to see how many pieces they would eat at once. I think our record was around 10 pieces of mango for one hungry, happy sloth.

The entirety of the experience was both fascinating and eye opening for me, and helped confirm my choice of study. I hope to get back down there at some point in the future, ideally to perform some of my own research to better understand these crazy little guys. If you have any questions about my experience, would like to volunteer or donate to the sanctuary, or just want to sloth-talk with me, please feel free to leave a comment with some feedback. Katie and I love reader-responses!

For prospective volunteers: The Sloth Sanctuary has a new website. Please visit http://slothsanctuary.weebly.com/volunteering-at-the-sanctuary.html if you are interested in helping at the sanctuary. Disregard their old webpage, it has many inaccuracies.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Kelly Lajter
    Jun 03, 2012 @ 22:36:26

    Awesome information Colin! I’m glad you wrote this for everyone. I hope that people can believe in the great nature of the Sanctuary and wish to help out. Here’s another great volunteer page on Facebook… https://www.facebook.com/SlothSanctuaryVolunteers.
    Many sloth hugs to you Colin! You are such a slothman and I adore it!

    Reply

  2. Michelle
    Aug 08, 2012 @ 04:07:59

    Hi, I have a few questions concerning the sloth sanctuary. I was going to volunteer there next year, but I’ve heard a lot of bad volunteer experiences, such as the owners only wanting your money, being rude/apathetic toward your help, running the place like a zoo rather than a sanctuary, not providing help with transportation and not feeding you as promised, and volunteers not being able to do projects such as planting trees/helping with tours/etc. as promised. Are these comments true? As much as I love sloths and want to volunteer, I want to be informed of the negatives before committing myself.

    Reply

    • ClimbingColin
      Aug 09, 2012 @ 21:56:35

      Hi Michelle! Not sure where you heard those accounts but the sanctuary is definitely no zoo. They do keep the sloths in cages but I assure you they are extremely well cared for and perfectly happy. They do everything they can to try and release the sloths back into the wild but some of them are too injured or simply have not developed the proper life strategies for living in the wild (e.g. choosing food that won’t cause it harm).
      For the most part, you do have to plan your own transportation, but if you follow the instructions given on the sanctuary webpage you’ll have no problems. I stayed at Hotel Brilla Sol when I landed in San Jose. They came and picked me up from the airport and brought me to the hotel, and then brought me to my pick-up location for Interbus, which I used to get down to the sanctuary. Some of the more confident travelers used public transportation to travel to the sanctuary but I would advise against this if you are new to traveling. Interbus takes you straight there.
      While you’re at the sanctuary you can really do whatever you want to help, and everyone is extremely thankful for it (and they show it). If you want to plant trees or garden, just ask and they will be more than happy to set you up with someone who’s doing a job that works for you. There are base jobs that you are required to do (caring for your assigned sloths and exercising the babies are examples) but there is plenty of down time for relaxing that you can use if you want to help with other tasks around the sanctuary.
      As for food, the cook is amazing. Your main meal is lunch, which is prepared for you. For breakfast you are given all the necessary items for a great meal but you do have to cook it yourself. Often times we would help each other make things like omelets or French toast. For dinner, you usually either go get food in town or the cook will make a little extra food along with leftovers from lunch. I gained weight while I was there so I assure you that you are fed well.
      It is really an amazing experience and they really do need volunteers at this time so I would really encourage you to go down there and give it a try. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had and I’m sure you’ll love it!
      Hope this helps, if you have any other questions feel free to comment back!

      Reply

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