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At the Sloth Sanctuary, infant sloths sleep in incubators. These warming machines are normally used for human babies.
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Suzi Eszterhas / Minden Pictures
Saving Sloths
A sanctuary in Costa Rica rescues injured and orphaned sloths

By Judith Jango-Cohen | for SuperScience

Twenty-one years ago in Costa Rica, three girls brought Judy Avey-Arroyo a surprise. They stood at her gate with a baby sloth whose mother had been hit by a car. Avey-Arroyo wanted to help, but she was unsure how to care for the tiny sloth. She owned a hotel and had no training in the care of wild animals. Looking for information, she contacted zoos. But even they didn’t know much about these peaceful tree-dwellers.

Avey-Arroyo named the baby sloth Buttercup. She gave Buttercup leaves that she’d seen sloths eating in the surrounding rainforest. The sloth hungrily crunched them up. With Avey-Arroyo’s care, Buttercup survived.

After her success, more people brought Avey-Arroyo injured and orphaned sloths they had found. She then opened a rescue center. Today, the Sloth Sanctuary has saved more than 500 animals.

FIT FOR THE FOREST

Sloths live in the rainforests of Central America and South America. There, they hang on to branches with curved claws. There are two main types of sloths. You can tell them apart by the number of claws they have on their front paws.

Sloths rarely move. They spend their time napping and nibbling on leaves. Their slow, quiet ways make it difficult for jaguars and other predators to detect them.

Adult sloths are covered in shaggy green-tinted fur. The color comes from algae growing in their hair. The algae’s smell hides a sloths’ natural scent from predators. It also helps them blend in with the treetops.

Sloths are amazingly adapted to life in their habitat. “They’re masters of the rainforest,” says Becky Cliffe, a scientist at the sanctuary. But some still arrive at the center needing help.

SHRINKING HABITAT

Costa Rica’s increasing human population means that the rainforest—and the sloths—isn’t as isolated as it used to be. Humans can cause a lot of problems for the animals, says Cliffe. Deforestation is chief among them. When trees are cut down, adult sloths can fall and break bones. Sloths living in deforested areas can run into human-made dangers. Some sloths suffer burns while climbing on power lines. Others are hit by cars or attacked by dogs.

At the center, workers care for the injured animals. Their goal is to return the sloths to the wild once the creatures are healthy enough. But some are too severely wounded to survive on their own. These animals remain at the center for the rest of their lives.

The sanctuary also cares for orphaned sloths whose mothers died or abandoned them. Why their mothers leave them is a mystery, says Cliffe. “Most of the babies are seemingly healthy and are found alone on the ground.”

Infants who have lost their mothers before they’re 6 months old can never live on their own: Their mothers haven’t taught them the skills for surviving in the rainforest. Unfortunately, people don’t know how to teach them.

“We desperately need to learn more about sloths,” says Cliffe.

SLOTH SLEUTHS

To gather data, Cliffe is outfitting some of the animals with high-tech backpacks. They hold electronic devices she calls daily diaries. The diaries contain cameras, compasses, and various sensors. They tell Cliffe what the sloths eat, where their favorite trees are, how far they roam, and when they mate.

Cliffe hopes that a deeper understanding of sloths will help people learn how to better protect them. She thinks more knowledge might also make it possible to teach sloths raised by people how to survive in the wild.

We have a lot to learn about sloths. But we can learn lessons from them too. Avey-Arroyo tries to live by the following sloth-inspired advice: “Live in peace and harmony, and chew your food slowly.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of SuperScience magazine. To find out more about SuperScience's great resources, click here.