Have you ever heard of an animal that lives in a tree and moves very slowly so that predators cannot see it? It has long, sharp claws and a strong grip, but it mostly eats leaves! It is native to Central and South America, and it is the size of a medium-sized dog. In Spanish, this animal is called an oso perezoso, or “lazy bear,” even though it is not a bear at all, and is actually closely related to an anteater. Can you guess what it is?
This strange and wonderful animal is a sloth! This week, I travelled to the Sloth Sanctuary near a small town on the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica, called Cahuita. Sloths that are hurt or orphaned are brought there to receive good, loving care from animal specialists and veterinarians. There I met Jeff, who taught me a lot about the life of a sloth in the wild. He also told me about some of the problems sloths face because of human actions in their habitat. Jeff talked about some of the things that the Sloth Sanctuary does to help. Jeff says that you and I can help sloths, too!
Jeff introduced us to Millie, a three-toed sloth who had been at the sanctuary since she was very young. One of the first things I noticed about Millie was that she had a very sweet, knowing smile on her face. It reminded me of the smile of a pig, and a dog when it is panting. She had a shiny nose and big round eyes, and caramel-colored, shaggy fur. Jeff placed her long front legs around his neck, and her shorter back legs around his waist like he was holding a toddler. Millie had a big bottom that made her look like she was wearing a furry diaper. Her neck was long and she turned it in odd directions, slowly looking at us. Jeff said he liked the smell of sloths. I sniffed Millie and she smelled like sweet woodchips and dust. Seeing Millie’s eyes looking right into mine made my heart swell up very big. I wanted to learn all about these animals that seemed so gentle, calm and curious.
Jeff explained to us that there are two kinds of sloths. The three-toed sloth has three long claws on its front feet, and the two-toed sloth has two long claws on its front feet. Both have five long claws on their back feet. Three-toed sloths have not been studied very much because many people do not believe they can survive in captivity. But Jeff’s family, who opened the sanctuary in 1992, has managed to heal and keep many three-toed sloths alive!
Sloths can live 35 to 40 years in the wild, and are famous for their very slow movement. Try letting your arm hang at your side and then stretching your hand out all the way in front of you. Now do it again when you slowly count to ten. That is how slow a sloth moves most of the time! Sloths have evolved to move slowly. They eat mostly buds and leaves of common tropical trees like eucalyptus. Leaves do not contain a lot of nutrients and energy, so sloths move slowly to save that energy. This movement helps them keep from being noticed by predators like jaguars, eagles and humans. Sloths only go to the bathroom about once a week! They climb down from the trees mostly for that reason. Female sloths can have up to one baby a year, and a young sloth is fully grown at age eight.
Although sloths are not considered endangered species in Costa Rica, they are endangered in other parts of Central and South America. Sadly, this is because of the actions of humans. People cut down the trees of the rainforest to use the land for cattle and farms, to build roads, extract minerals, and to make logs and paper out the trees. Sloths in these rainforests are running out of places to live. Sloths can also be harmed by pesticides like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT for short. DDT is a very poisonous chemical that is carried by airplanes and sprayed over banana plantations in Central America. Some of the DDT ends up in the soil, gets into the roots of trees and is carried all the way to the leaves. When sloths eat these leaves, they can become very sick. We also met Toyota, a very friendly sloth, who was burned on a power line and had to have his arm amputated.
But on the bright side, Jeff says that kids’ voices can make a big difference!
“When kids call their senators and ask them to vote to protect animals, those senators listen just the same as they listen to adults,” Jeff said. The government sometimes votes on whether to allow the use of a dangerous chemical, or about the possible destruction of an important habitat for an endangered animal. When you learn about an important vote coming up, you can research it, and then tell them what you think. You can also make art projects and videos to post on the internet about protecting the earth’s plants and animals, or about anything that is important to you. It takes a lot of work, but every bit helps. “When kids raise their voices, adults take notice,” Jeff said. “They think, ‘If those kids can do this, we can too!’”
I hope you enjoyed meeting Jeff, Millie, Toyota and the other sloths in the Sloth Sanctuary as much as I did. I am curious: Have you ever taken a stand about something you believe in? Have you ever stuck up for a person or an animal that needed a friend? How did it feel? Have a great week, and I will see you on our next adventure here in Costa Rica!