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.