Mike & I visited the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica about 15 years ago on a cruise excursion from Limón. At that time, founders Judy Avery-Arroyo, an American, and her Costa Rican husband Luis Arroyo had been rescuing sloths for about ten years. As they explain on their website, “ In 1992, three neighbor girls brought a tiny baby sloth to the Arroyos. They had found it near an adult sloth that had been killed by a car. The girls knew the Arroyos were animal lovers, so they gave it to them. Judy and Luis had no knowledge of sloth care—most people considered them to be vermin at that time. Although they sought assistance, not even zoos or wildlife rescue centers knew how to guide them in sloth care. So they observed what wild sloths ate on their property, and used their common sense to hand raise this sloth. Today, Buttercup™ is 25 years old and the iconic face of the Sloth Sanctuary. Sadly, Luis Arroyo passed away in 2011, but the family has continued on with their vision.“
Indeed, little was known about the proper way to care for sloths in captivity or rehabilitate them in order to reintroduce them in the wild and mistakes were made. When we visited the Sloth Sanctuary 15 years ago, we were allowed to hold Buttercup and the other sloths, a lovely experience for the visitor but terrible for the sloths. These poor practices made it impossible to reintroduce several otherwise healthy sloths, turning them into lifelong residents of the Sloth Sanctuary. Today, only staff members are allowed to touch and handle the sloths. The Sloth Sanctuary works with the University of Costa Rica to ensure the sloths are cared for in accordance with the latest scientific research and only Costa Ricans work or volunteer there.
While we’re staying in the area, Mike & I decide to visit the Sloth Sanctuary again and learn more about their efforts on behalf of the sloths.
When we arrive at the Sloth Sanctuary, a 40 minute bus ride about halfway between where we’re staying in Cahuita and Puerto Limón, we opt for the standard “Buttercup tour” for $30 per person, which includes a 45-minute canoe ride followed by an hour long tour of the sanctuary facility. We have time to use the restroom, do a little birding, and visit a Two-toed Sloth before the next tour starts.
At noon we board a sturdy fiberglass canoe (along with another family) and our boatman paddles us along the shallow Estrella River to see lowland rainforest flora and fauna. We see several wild sloths hanging in the trees, blue crabs along the shore, and several Emerald Basilisks.
After our boat ride, we start the second part of our tour in which we see inside the sloth sanctuary and learn more about sloths. The first thing we learn is that the Two-toed and the Three-toed sloths – or more accurately, the Two-fingered and Three-fingered Sloths as they’re referred to at the Sanctuary since all sloths have three toes but two or thre fingers depending on the species – are completely different from each other. Besides the number of fingers, Three-fingered Sloths weigh much less than Two-fingered Sloths. Since their diet consists entirely of leaves, Three-fingered Sloths have only molars while Two-fingered Sloths have both molars and canines to enable them to eat leaves, flowers, nuts, green fruits, eggs, and small prey. And Three-fingered Sloths look completely different from the Two-fingered Sloths with smaller eyes, a small tail (the Two-fingered Sloth has no tail), a longer neck, and forelegs that are longer than their rear legs (on a Two-fingered Sloth, all legs are the same length).
We enjoy seeing both species of sloths in their cages and learning their stories, even though all the stories are very sad. Most of the sloths are in captivity because they’ve been seriously injured (electrocuted on power lines, hit by cars, fallen from trees) and their injuries prevent them from living in the wild. Some are there because when they started the Sloth Sanctuary, they didn’t know as much as they do now and they handled the sloths too much and allowed visitors to hold them. Other sloths are there because they were abandoned by their mothers or they were injured but now healed; most of these sloths are being prepared for reintroduction to the wild.
Sloths are difficult to see in the wild, perched as they are among branches at the top of trees and moving very seldom. A visit to the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica will ensure that you see both species of sloths found in Costa Rica. You’ll learn some fascinating facts about sloths, how to tell the Two-toed and Three-toed Sloths apart, and about sloth conservation efforts. And your visit supports the conservation efforts of this wonderful organization!
For more information about the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica, visit their website: http://www.slothsanctuary.com