The 20th of October marks one of the cutest days in the animal calendar - International Sloth Day! But while sloths are easily one of the most adorable animals on earth (they’ve been the internet’s sweetheart for many years, that’s for sure!), their lives are not necessarily as laid-back and simple as they may seem. In fact, it is the global adoration of these lovable creatures which can sometimes put them at risk, and it’s important that we humans understand our place in their world - but that’s something we’ll go onto a little later. First of all, let’s take a look at the history of International Sloth Day!
Also known as ‘World Sloth Day’, International Sloth Day got its start back in 2010, thanks to the non-profit organisation AIUNAU. Members of the AIUNAU team located in Colombia had been working with sloths as early as 1996, but over the years had become distressed with how many sloths would arrive at their centre in a bad way: some would have been hit by cars and left to die; others would have been electrocuted on power lines. Disturbingly, many of the sloths that AIUNAU encountered had actually been kept as pets - an issue which, unfortunately, still prevails today.
While not all sloths found in Colombia could be saved (some of them wouldn’t ever even make it to the centre), those that did arrive would be nursed back to health by members of the AIUNAU team, with suitable candidates being released back into the wild for a second chance at life. But while the re-release of sloths is incredibly important, certain fears would still remain: would they be recaptured? Would they survive in an increasingly modern world? With those concerns felt by not only the team at AIUNAU but by conservationists around the globe, it was only a matter of time for an awareness day to take off in defence of these at-risk animals. After all, with certain types of sloth close to extinction and several others before them already wiped out, the urgency to save the remaining species has only become greater over the years.
Since 2010, International Sloth Day has garnered more attention with each passing year. From its humble beginnings with AIUNAU to a spotlight focus from the likes of Forbes, Buzzfeed and National Geographic, this is an occasion which seems to be celebrated the world round - but oftentimes, it feels as if the point is being missed. While sloths suffer such injustices as being electrocuted, maimed or poached for keeping as pets, major publications tend to shift their attention to what makes the creatures so lovable, rather than encouraging readers to learn more about the animals and their needs to survive.
Indeed, it may be that conservation efforts can enjoy greater success when the subject at the centre of their focus happens to be so darn adorable (see: the successes of panda conservation), but while some of these other species have their plight highlighted in tandem with their cute appearances, sloths have often served as a bit of comic relief to the universe and little much else. Internet memes, amusing anthropomorphism in children’s movies, and accounts/blogs dedicated to their charming looks/goofy behaviours have reigned supreme for many years; unfortunate, then, is the fact that this adoration has seldom been used as a vehicle to encourage conservation efforts. There are those who seem to have gotten it right - the team behind our Sloth Conservation and Wildlife Experience have succeeded in striking a balance between social admiration and the need to raise awareness for conservation efforts - but others have been led down something of a darker trail. See, for example, the infamous ‘Sloth Sanctuary’ in Costa Rica: once revered as ‘the’ place to witness such beautiful animals in the early stages of their rehabilitation process, the sanctuary soon saw temptation in the unethical side of tourism, keeping the sloths in their cages for far too long and ultimately using their high population of captive animals to draw attention from paying customers. Reports and reviews were written about the quality of life that these poor sloths were subjected to: sores, fleas and missing appendages are just a few of the examples covered in this expose article from 2016, written with the help of two former employees. The publication of the expose was met with horror from the public and disdain/denial from the sanctuary’s founders, but did cause at least a temporary dent in the Sloth Sanctuary’s popularity, as is described in this article, considered something of a rebuttal against the claims of those former staff members.
Whether the failings of the Sloth Sanctuary are as severe as they seem, or simply the words of some disgruntled past employees, the images seen in the former article are haunting and call into question the motives of sanctuaries other than just this one. Indeed, The Great Projects have reported on false sanctuaries in the past and the need for volunteers to be vigilant when choosing where to visit on their holidays, and it is evident that sufficient research is needed no matter which animal you desire to help. While the team at The Sloth Sanctuary seem to think a damning article from 2016 tells only part of the story - something which could perhaps be perceived as untruths, certainly when taken out of context - one does have to question the sanctuary’s own moral compass, including their willingness to partner with major fashion brands by using their animals as models. Is the sanctuary’s longest serving resident, Buttercup, an animal in need - or is she somebody who has been held onto by the sanctuary as a money-making device, her charming good looks making her not only the main draw of the sanctuary, but also the face of American Apparel? Can choices such as these be made if compassion is what is truly at the heart of your organisation?
Questions such as the above might allow you, the reader, to make up your own mind on whether a certain sanctuary’s ethos aligns with your own. Does it disturb you to find that an animal can be used as a form of entertainment, or is Buttercup’s past position as a model more lighthearted than some might make out? Indeed, one might argue that an off-kilter move on behalf of any sanctuary could help to drum up media interest, ultimately converting that attention into an educational experience by those who are willing to learn. Sadly, this oftentimes does not seem to be the case, and so the cycle of seeking out sloths for the wrong reason persists.
If you are that way inclined, a simple google search of ‘where to hug a sloth’ results in just shy of 5,000,000 results. The first page of results, depending on when and where you might be searching from, could render results consisting of desperation and wish fulfilment (‘If I could, my life would be complete’) to a list of the ‘best travel experiences’ by a sizable publication which should know better (‘hug a sloth’ appears at number 25 on PopSugar’s list of ‘82 travel experiences to have while you’re alive and breathing’). By contrast, a search for ‘sloth conservation experience’ renders around 5 times fewer results. By comparing these results side-by-side, it does beg the question of not only the type of experiences people prefer to seek out, but moreso, why they want those experiences above any other.
It seems lazy to pinpoint the blame on a blanket term of ‘the media’, but in the case of sloths, this does somehow seem to be true. With the prevalence of apps such as Instagram and Twitter serving as a dream factory for those seeking the next big thing to do - specifically, those which look the best on social media - certain industries have seen spikes in interest, and have enlisted the help of adept young adults to help ‘sell’ a certain product to a ravenous audience. Twitter user ‘Brother Nature’, for example, seems to have gained popularity through his own seemingly wholesome interaction with the deer in his local neighborhood - but as his audience has grown, so has his ego, and the barriers between himself and wilder animals have shrunk into nothingness. This post of ‘Brother Nature’ (real name Kelvin Peña) caressing and slow-dancing with a sloth went down a storm on his preferred platform of Twitter, and soon saw massive publications reposting the video for their own benefit and audience amusement. Indeed, more than a handful of BN’s own followers responded to his videos comparing him to Steve Irwin - a somewhat polarising, but nevertheless popular figure in the world of conservation. The question is: what is Brother Nature doing to aid the preservation of these animals? The response to the sloth clip, in particular, seems to point to ‘very little’ - in fact, the inverse seems apparent. ‘This needs to happen in my lifetime,’ wrote one user, with hundreds of other people apparently agreeing with this notion by responding in their own ways.
It would be unfair to blame users such as ‘Brother Nature’ (or, indeed, sole organisations such as The Sloth Sanctuary) for the struggles faced by sloths in today’s world. But one thing is for sure: more energy needs to be put into the protection of these animals, and education is a fantastic way to go about that. Wildlife publications, social media accounts, tv shows and so forth each demand huge audiences to their chosen platforms - but wouldn’t it be nice if a little bit of time could be spent trying to better the world via entertainment, rather than aiming to entertain alone? Rather than relying on the shallow aesthetics of a funny, bumbling creature to garner hits on a webpage or account, could we not utilise the lovability of sloths to use as a vehicle for education? (Note: to focus a little more attention on Brother Nature, it is evident that there is a very good guy at the heart of the social media sensation: as a result of his online success, he has launched the ‘Everybody Eats Foundation’, an organisation initially used to provide nutritious food to his neighbourhood deer. The organisation has since morphed into a non-profit which aims to help single-parent families feed their kids during the holidays, and also hopes to provide food/finances for after-school clubs. At the age of 18 years old, Kelvin Peña may not have mastered the art of social responsibility - but his work here shows fantastic initiative, and this could be a young man with the potential to do great things for wildlife conservation, if given the chance and perhaps a little guidance.)
The fact of the matter is, sloths are goofy. Sloths are adorable. Sloths are facing some serious risks in their lifetime, and if we wish to admire them for much longer, we have to pull together to create a world in which they’re able to survive. Volunteering at the Sloth Conservation and Wildlife Experience is a great way to learn about these beloved creatures (alongside others) while witnessing them up close in a happy, safe environment - so why not consider joining a placement today? After all, a third of your volunteer fee goes right back into funding conservation - a double-whammy of joy, once paired with working alongside the animals! If volunteering isn’t possible for you, there are other ways in which you can support sloth survival:
- Check out www.slothconservation.com/how-to-help/ to see how you can aid sloth conservation from afar, either by ‘adopting’ an animal or helping to raise funds for education and safety measures. The link we’ve provided does a great job at breaking down the ways in which your money will be spent, and how much is needed for each phase of sloth protection.
- Educate yourself at home by reading up on sloth conservation efforts, the reality of sloth tourism, and the daily struggles faced by these animals. The truth isn’t always pretty, but it might make you change your mind on seeking out hugging experiences.
- Keep your ear to the ground and listen out for whispers of poor sanctuary conditions, hunting expeditions and so forth. If you ever see or hear of anything that doesn’t look right, don’t be afraid to speak out - there have been awful organisations which could have continued to run throughout history if a passionate few weren’t brave enough to speak up (see: tiger temple), and it’s important to know that you can be a part of the change.
- Be sure to share your knowledge with others! Whether by sharing our infographic (see the bottom of this page), leading classes and seminars about sloth conservation, or raising funds through bake or craft sales, there are plenty of ways to share your smarts and compassion with the world - so, get out there and make a difference!
How will you be celebrating International Sloth Day? Let us know in the comments!
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