Moveover, Meercats! Lazy? Sloths are a lot Livelier Than you Think

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    There’s an upside-down world in a sleepy corner of Costa Rica, Central America, where laziness is a virtue, not a sin: a sanctuary – the only one in the world – devoted to saving orphaned and injured sloths.

    For the past year I’ve been making a documentary about the residents of this idle idyll for Animal Planet. But far from being a somnolent sort of place where not much happens, I found a surprising soap opera of love, loss – and lust.

    It all began when I stumbled upon the Aviarios del Caribe sloth sanctuary in 2010. I love odd animals and baby sloths are a goofy mixture of inappropriate dozing, wobbly vulnerability and hooklike hands.

    I thought they were hilarious and posted a rough-and-ready video called Meet The Sloths online. Within days it had gone around the world, been tweeted by Stephen Fry, Ricky Gervais and Ashton Kutcher, and featured everywhere from the CNN news channel to The Moscow Times. And now they’ve got their own TV show.

    Despite their reputation for laziness – sloths spend up to 70 per cent of their time ‘resting’ – and stupidity, they are in fact remarkably successful animals, whose slow-motion lifestyle helps them slip under the radar of predators, such as the harpy eagle.

    In the wild they’re shrouded in a cloak of invisibility: their mottled green fur a miniature ecosystem harbouring two species of algae and thousands of insects, including a moth that lives only on sloths. With no natural odour, they look and smell just like a tree.

    It’s been suggested their nerves have evolved to react more slowly so they don’t flinch at loud noises, which surely makes them nature’s most chilled-out animal. But 60 million years of evolution has not prepared the sloth for the roads and powerlines that now crisscross their jungle home.

    Two of the six species inhabiting South and Central America are endangered, largely thanks to mankind. Which is where the sanctuary comes in. It’s the creation of Judy Avey-Arroyo, an attractive American in her sixties, who never intended to start a sloth sanctuary.

    She and her husband Luis ran a small hotel on Costa Rica’s undeveloped Caribbean coast. One day, two small girls turned up on her doorstep clutching a shoebox. Inside was a tiny, three-toed sloth, just weeks old, that had been found clinging to its dead mother by the side of the road.

    At the time no one had managed to keep a baby sloth alive longer than a few months because it is almost impossible to find a substitute for sloth milk, but Judy decided she’d try. She had no formal training, but her mother had run a pet shop so she’d grown up among exotic creatures.

    Unfazed, Judy adopted a common sense approach and succeeded where others had failed by using goat’s milk. That baby, Buttercup – now 20 years old – is the world’s oldest captive sloth.

    Sloths have very distinct personalities and Buttercup is quite a character. She decided she didn’t want to live in a tree, and would curl up on the couch with Judy and Luis and watch TV. Now she rules over her sleepy empire from a Seventies hanging basket chair.

    Word soon got out there was a place that cared for sloths in need, and in no time there were sloths everywhere. Many are orphans, while others are rescued  from poachers who snatch babies for the illegal pet trade. The babies are fed every four hours and like a stuffed toy to hug in place of their mothers. And because sloths have a slow metabolic rate, a very low body temperature and the Costa Rican nights can get chilly, the very young ones are kept in incubators – and in extreme cases wear bespoke sloth pyjamas crafted from old sports socks.

    Judy does her best to be a surrogate mum, but one thing she can’t teach her sloths is which leaves are safe to eat. The jungle is full of toxic trees, and sloths are adapted to eat just a handful. Sadly, Judy’s few attempts at releasing orphans back into the wild have resulted in tragedy so, until more research is done, the sloths must remain her guests.

    There is just one house rule. No sex. Judy really doesn’t want any more babies, so the adult males and females are kept apart to minimise temptation. But when the sanctuary’s females are in heat they scream, attracting wild males from the jungle up to half a mile away.

    Often, more than one male will arrive and a fight breaks out – the loser is the first to fall from the tree. We were lucky to be the first film crew to capture wild sloths mating but, after a flurry of creative posturing, the deed itself is over in less than five seconds. And guess what the satisfied sloth does immediately afterwards? Yep, he has a nap.

    Meet The Sloths, Animal Planet, Sunday 4 March, 8pm.


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