Can the internet’s love of sloths help keep them wild?

A Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium ambassador holds Siesta, a two toed Sloth who has lived at the zoo for almost 15 years. (Courtesy photo)
A Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium ambassador holds Siesta, a two toed Sloth who has lived at the zoo for almost 15 years. (Courtesy photo)

Over the past few years, American pop culture has become increasingly obsessed with sloths (remember Kristen Bell’s epic meltdown?) Many find their adorable yet absurd appearance intriguing. Others are inspired by their slow and steady lifestyle (sleeping 15-20 hours a day sound good to anyone else?)

Of course, we’re mostly fascinated with sloths due to their innate ability to melt your heart after watching just the first five seconds of the bucket of sloths video (click at your own risk).

My interest in the species stems back to my childhood, when the Woodland Park Zoo used to have a nocturnal exhibit that was home to several two toed sloths. My attention span at that age was nearly nonexistent, but by some miracle I pressed up against that plate glass enclosure for what seemed like hours (maybe a few minutes) watching them methodically munch on the leaves of their tree.

It was love at first sight, and I’ve carried that fascination with me well into adulthood.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Medellin, Colombia to learn about the vast differences between one South American population of sloths and my furry friends in Seattle.

Tinka Plese is the director and founder of the Aiunau Foundation, a rehabilitation center for sloths and other xenarthra species in Medellin. She described her first interactions with sloths back in 1996.

“I didn’t know about Jane Goodall at the time, to tell you the truth, but when we created our first enclosure, we had similar practices as she did, but with sloths,” said Plese. “I would hide myself from their view, and observe their behavior from a distance, although they knew of my presence. I let them be themselves, and when you let them be themselves, they start to express themselves as they are, and they start to become curious with you.”

A sloth in recovery at the Aiuniu Rehabilitation Center in Medellin, Colombia, getting ready to return to the wild. (Courtesy photo)
A sloth in recovery at the Aiuniu Rehabilitation Center in Medellin, Colombia, getting ready to return to the wild. (Courtesy photo)

The Aiunau Foundation is an intensive labor of love for Plese. She and her staff work round the clock to gain the trust of animals who have suffered severe trauma, and nurse them back to health. For some sloths, it can take years before they reach a full recovery and are able to be released back into a protected wild area, far from harm.

While shows like Animal Planet’s Meet the Sloths graze over the issues of deforestation and animal trafficking, the majority of us are largely unaware of the manmade problems endangering one of the internet’s most popular species today.

Plese works in an area that has become increasingly hostile for the Xenarthra group of mammals which includes sloths, anteaters and armadillos. Animal trafficking in Colombia, particularly in the northern region of the department of Córdoba where wild fauna are prevalent, is a simmering issue.

“Even though the Colombian laws are one of the most complete in terms of prohibiting wildlife trafficking, the crime is treated as a minor offense,” she said.

Plese has worked on a team with government officials and other organizations dedicated to stopping a family of known traffickers who operate an organized roadside black market in the Córdoba region.

“This family has involved the entire village — one person observes the road, one hides the animals, the others solicit sales,” said Plese. “We have been working since 2006 to patrol the area. This group goes around the region making deals with young children who live in poverty on the countryside to buy the animals for 5,000 pesos — roughly $2 U.S. dollars.”

According to Plese, the group has abducted baby sloths from their mothers in the wild, brutally clipping the teeth and nails that sloths rely on for mobility.

“They drug the sloths so they appear tame when they are sold in Córdoba, to be taken and sold through Panama and Venezuela, internationally,” she said.

The sloths that aren’t sold are often thrown on the streets, where their chance of survival is slim to none. Sloths are born with weak back hind legs that aren’t strong enough to carry them back into the forest to safety. After the trauma they’ve endured, they’re left defenseless and utterly defeated.

After spending some time at Aiunau’s rehabilitation center and thinking back on my first experience at the zoo, I wondered if there were educational opportunities for zoo patrons to learn more about the species on display. Do zoos offer enhancement programs to work towards a happy healthier life for the species?

Karen Povey, a curator at the Northwest’s other major zoo, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, and has spent the majority of her career as a staff biologist, helping raise the animals and build their trust and interactions with people.

Siesta the sloth is one of the celebrities in the Point Defiance Zoo's species ambassador program, where she's carried around the zoo grounds with a staff member and gets to meet visitors face to face. (courtesy photo)
Siesta the sloth is one of the celebrities in the Point Defiance Zoo’s species ambassador program, where she’s carried around the zoo grounds with a staff member and gets to meet visitors face to face. (Courtesy photo)

She remembers when Siesta, a 15-year-old two toed sloth, first arrived at the zoo as an infant.

“She looked like a cute baby tootsie roll when we first got her,” she recalls. “She’s grown into one of our most popular ambassadors, it’s so cool how people get excited to see her out on the grounds.”

Siesta is part of the zoo’s ambassador program, where her role is to help connect people with wildlife encounters. She hangs from the staffs’ sweatshirts as they walk around and educate people on issues like rainforest conservation.

“She was hand-raised and is very comfortable around people. I’m glad we get to introduce these poorly known and misunderstood species to our guests,” she said.

Siesta lives behind the scenes at the zoo, sleeping most of the day away in her temperature controlled area where she enjoys sleeping in her hammock, curled up with her favorite fleece blanket.

“She has several sleeping areas she loves, and she also has a sloth sized kennel that has a wooden dowel as a makeshift branch to hang on,” said Povey.

Siesta’s enrichment program is heavily focused around food, and she would sooner take a nap than play with toys.

“She loves grapes, figs, dried plums and willows. Sloths don’t need to solve puzzles or stimulate their brain as much as some of the other species we have here. She is largely indifferent to toys,” Povey said.

Siesta’s biggest problem seems to be deciding which area she wants to curl up and get cozy in for the night; far different from the life she might have experienced in Colombia.

As zoo patrons, we’re put in a unique position to have face-to-face interactions with wildlife ambassadors like Siesta, and learn about their natural habitats from professionals who have researched and become well acquainted with the species.

The devastating effects of human impact that Tinka Plese and her South American sloths are working to overcome may seem distant, but having these ambassador interactions at the zoo and keeping the conversation around conservation going might just keep awareness efforts circling on a local scale.

The more time we spend interacting and getting to know sloths in captivity like Siesta, will help shed light on how to better protect the species who need it most in the wild.

For more information on Aiunau’s sloth and xenarthra rehabilitation program, visit http://www.aiunau.org/en/.

Correction: The original version of this post misidentified Point Defiance curator Karen Povey as Karen Goodrowe Beck.

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