Forget the nature shows. Forget the viral Web videos. Forget the zoo. There is no comparison, after all, with the moment you make eye contact with one of dozens of rescued sloths at the Aviarios del Caribe Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica, on the southern Caribbean coast.
Alaskan native Judy Arroyo and her husband, Luis Arroyo, of Costa Rica – both nature enthusiasts – never intended on caring for the elusive and threatened animals. Then, they met Buttercup.
In 1991, a deadly 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck near Limón, destroying the couple’s home near Penhurst, about 30 kilometers south of the Caribbean port city. The Arroyos rebuilt their home as a small hotel. Shortly afterward, three young girls from nearby brought them a three-fingered sloth, just a few months old and abandoned by its mother.
The couple called the San José zoo for help. “The zoo said they didn’t know anything about baby sloths (and said), ‘You’re on your own and good luck,’” Judy Arroyo recalled.They nursed the sloth back to health, feeding her local leaves. Today, the 18-year-old Buttercup, a gangly, sweet-faced bradypus, or three-fingered sloth, greets visitors to the sanctuary, perched in her wicker swing chair, occasionally delighting in what seems to be a gingerly choreographed display of her flexibility and balance: hanging upside down, crossing her long arms in impossible positions.
A year after Buttercup’s arrival, a local fruit vendor brought the Arroyos another sloth, this one a fiery-haired two-fingered sloth, or choloepus.“People found out we cared about sloths, that we knew a little bit about them,” Judy Arroyo said. “From there, it started snowballing.”
Since Buttercup, the Arroyos have rescued more than 120 two- and three-fingered sloths, many of which are still in the sanctuary.
According to the couple, misinformation about sloths, such as that they are aggressive or that mothers selfishly drop or abandon their young, is commonplace. Habitat destruction at the hand of Costa Rica’s urbanization boom has proven a major threat to the animals. They are often electrocuted or caught in power lines, causing mothers to drop their young, or they are trafficked as exotic animals.
Even the common usage of “two-toed” and “three-toed” to distinguish between the species is misleading, as all sloths have three toes on their lower limbs; it is the digits on their upper limbs that vary in number.Visitors to the Sloth Sanctuary have an open invitation to dispel some of the myths.
“One of the things you find written about them is that they’re bad mothers, that they won’t come down to the ground. And why do they say that? She won’t come down because there are people there,” Judy Arroyo said.
A guided tour of the facilities takes visitors to dozens of sloth cages where the animals are healing from injuries or trauma, or are simply not ready to be reintroduced into the wild. Still, this is not a zoo. The goal is to rescue and help the animals recuperate. Some 70 sloths have been reintroduced to the wild since the Arroyos began the project almost two decades ago.
As for the scores of sloths that still cannot survive independently in the wild, visitors are invited to observe them and learn their stories, which Judy Arroyo and the staff know by heart and recount with emotion and pragmatism in equal measure.
The tour takes visitors at lunchtime to the restaurant-style kitchen, where dozens of colorful plates of carrots, cucumber and dog food are lined up neatly before feeding time. Specialists and volunteers open the doors, cooing and encouraging the animals to eat. The sloths often take carrots straight from their hands.
They may be slow-moving, but they are quick to recognize a visitor; eye contact is almost guaranteed. Be sure not to look away as they hang, sometimes upside down, their sharp claws adroitly curved around wooden poles in their pens.
The jewel of the site is the nursery, home to the rescued babies, some just a few weeks old. Peer down into a bed of three choloepus young, a tangle of wiry auburn and cream-colored hair and lanky, awkward limbs, as they climb over each other, clamoring for attention or toys. A specialist feeds a baby bradypus milk through a syringe; it lifts a head of new, bristly, salt-and-pepper hair from the stuffed animal it is resting on, seemingly to acknowledge the visitor, before returning to breakfast.
The Arroyos have a staff of more than a dozen, including a full-time veterinary team, as well as volunteers.
The project costs up to $10,000 a month, which they support with tours, the hotel and a sloth adoption program – and no, that does not mean taking the sloth home, but supporting medical attention and boarding of a rescued sloth with a donation of $100 to $500.
There is no shortage of the animals. Judy Arroyo said she’s been brought rescued animals from as far away as San José and the northwestern province of Guanacaste. No sloth is turned away.
The Sloth Sanctuary is one of a growing number of private wildlife refuges in Costa Rica, as the government falls behind on protecting wildlife with state funds. Last month, the country launched a program to court private donations for the “adoption” of national parks.
The Arroyos aim to make their refuge as much an educational center as a rescue center for the slow-moving creatures. The access the sanctuary offers visitors – nature enthusiasts, experts and novices alike – is bound to force them to soak it all in, and enjoy a closer look at a slothful pace.
From San José, take Highway 32 through Guápiles to Limón. From here, turn south at the sign for Cahuita and Puerto Viejo. Aviarios del Caribe is approximately 31 km south of Limón; just after the large, yellow sloth crossing sign, turn left into the Sloth Sanctuary entrance.
The sanctuary’s 2.5-hour sloth tour ($25 for ages 12 and up, $15 for ages 5 to 11, free for kids under 4) includes a one-hour guided canoe ride through the Río Estrella delta, a visit to the learning center and a chance to meet and learn about the sanctuary’s adult and baby sloths. Tours run continually from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; reservations are not needed.For information, call 2750-0775 or visit www.slothrescue.org.