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Monday, August 7, 2017

Hanging Out With Sloths

In the wild as in the zoo, sloths are the masters of going unnoticed.  I've spent several exasperating mornings scouring the sloth enclosure, looking for that telltale mass of blond fur wedged in a corner. In zoos, they are commonly displayed in large, mixed-species rainforests exhibits, often shared with small primates, various birds, and perhaps tortoises or iguanas.  Never mind the other animals, though - it's the sloths that everyone wants to see.

For reasons that often baffle me, sloths are among the most popular animals in the zoo.

I'm not quite sure when it started... or how.  Parents of small children often attest to the DMV-worker sloths from the popular animated film Zootopia... but I know it predated that.  Perhaps it was actress Kristen Bell's epic sloth-crazed meltdown on Ellen... but it seems like it was before that, too.  Sid the sloth from Ice Age?  He was a giant ground sloth, and bore little resemblance to the sloths in our facilities.

Objectively speaking, sloths are cute, though most visitors won't ever see their faces as they lie curled up.  Perhaps the appeal is in their perceived harmlessness - it's certainly hard to imagine being scared of a sloth or threatened by one... though to be fair, they do have some crazy-looking eyes (again, something that not many visitors see).  Also, I myself have been threatened by an aggressive sloth before... it's not exactly frightening, but there is something seriously unnerving about it.  My money is on their defining characteristic - their sleepiness.  It's the most adorable trait they have, and I think that many visitors relate to an animal that wants nothing more than to lie in a cuddle-ball.

I believe I've heard the word "Spirit Animal" used more than once.

Whatever it is, people love sloths.  Much of what we love about sloths could also explain our collective adoration for koalas... though much of that could also apply to tree kangaroos or cuscuses or binturongs, neither of which has gained anything like this kind of public appeal.

My Director is perpetually baffled by the public fascination with sloths.  Every time they come up in conversation, his immediate reply is, "I just don't understand what it is about them..."  Neither do I.  The thing is, I don't need to understand.  What I do understand is that there is an animal under my care that the public is endlessly fascinated.    It could have been any other species.  It just so happens to be sloths.

Knowing that, we have an opening.  They come to our zoos and aquariums to see animals that they relate to, like sloths.  We can use that to start a conversation - about sloths, about animals, and about the habitats that support them.

That's quite a burden for a sleepy ball of fur.

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