A sloth springing into action doesn’t even seem possible, given the creature’s notorious lethargy, but one of Costa Rica’s two sloth species is as fast as it is fierce. “Like a lion!” says Encar García, a conservationist. This atypical species, which is called Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth, does not hesitate to deploy its teeth or its two large front legs when threatened. The other species, which has three index fingers and is called the brown-throated sloth, is, she reassures us, more typical: “the one that smiles”.
Despite their stark differences, Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth and brown-throated sloth face the same issues when people encroach on their forest habitat. They climb power lines looking for a mate and often get electrocuted. If they come down from trees, they can be attacked by dogs. The rapid development of forest areas has resulted in more deaths and injuries, says García. “We save a sloth almost every day.”
The organization she co-founded, the Jaguar Rescue Center, in Playa Chiquita, hosts orphaned and injured sloths and other mammals such as monkeys and opossums, as well as birds and reptiles. (Not jaguars, however; the name is an acknowledgment of an early effort to rehabilitate a misidentified ocelot.) The center provides its patients with food, shelter and medical care, with the goal of returning the animals to nature.
Breastfeeding a helpless baby sloth, who weighs only 10 or 11 ounces, or the size of a grapefruit, requires almost constant attention for several months. Infants are fed goat’s milk every three hours throughout the day and night until they are ready for a leaf-based diet, usually around 11 months. However, all the blankets and baby bottles in the world don’t make up for not having a real parent. A baby sloth in the wild will cling to its mother’s fur for about six months while learning to find leaves that are nutritious and low in toxins. “We’re not perfect lazy moms,” García says. “I mean, we can’t eat leaves, we can’t teach them to climb trees.”
The rescue center releases between a third and a half of the sloths it cares for. Once an animal has recovered from an injury or grown large enough to survive on its own, it is fitted with a microchip, painted nails, and colored braid to identify it. According to the center’s latest records, 90% of sloths released into the wild over the past two years are still alive today and thriving in their natural habitat, even if it is shrinking.