A Tale of Three Two-Toed Sloths
In the country of Panama, in a beautiful house overlooking the Caribbean Ocean, there lived an elderly couple, Vance and Vinnie Andrews, and three sloths. The sloths were of different sizes and ages and their names were Thunder, Lightning and Hurry. Of course, Thunder never made loud noises, Lightning only flashed a bright smile and Hurry never moved very fast. In fact none of the sloths moved fast.
This is the story of how the three sloths came to live in the beautiful house overlooking the ocean. One stormy afternoon, a boy came to the house carrying a young sloth. The sloth had been wounded in the face when a hunter tried to kill it with a machete. The sloth’s mother had been killed, but somehow the young sloth survived and the boy found it on the ground clinging to its dead mother. Vance thanked the boy for bringing the sloth to his house and asked him to help carry the wounded animal into his car. Vance then drove to a nearby veterinary clinic and carried the sloth inside.
The vet looked at the sloth and said, “I don’t know anything about sloths so I can’t treat him.”
Vance, upset by what the vet had said, replied, “I am not leaving until you treat the sloth. It needs medical attention and you are the only one who can help it.”
The vet sighed and took the sloth into his examining room. He gave the sloth an injection to put him to sleep and then stitched up the wound on its face. He also gave it an antibiotic injection and handed Vance a bottle of antibiotic pills. He explained how he should clean the wound three times a day and told him to bring the sloth back in a week for a checkup.
Vance returned home with the sloth and told his wife about the trip to the vet’s clinic. Vinnie said she would help care for the sloth and over the next few days they nursed the sloth back to health. Vinnie, who was very good with computers, did some research on the Internet to find out what sloths ate as well as any other useful information she could find. As a result, she gradually accumulated a wealth of knowledge about sloths such as their habits and diet.
Vinnie discovered that sloths love to eat hibiscus flowers. As it so happened, Vance and Vinnie had several flowering hibiscus plants growing on their 10-acre plot of land. Everyday, they would gather a basket of flowers for the sloth to eat.
* * * *
Seven days had passed and Vance took the sloth back to the vet. The vet was happy to see the sloth looking healthy. He removed the stitches from the sloth’s face. He told Vance that the sloth was doing fine and he didn’t have to bring him back unless he showed signs of an infection. When Vance asked the vet how much he owed him, the vet smiled and said the fact that the sloth recovered was payment enough. Vance thanked the vet, shook hands with him and then drove back to his beautiful house overlooking the ocean.
When he returned, Vance and Vinnie sat down to talk about what they were going to do with the sloth. They both had grown very attached to him – they had discovered it was a male. Vinnie said, “If we are going to keep the sloth, he should have a name.” They both thought for a while and finally Vance said, “Let’s call him Thunder.” He was brought to us during a thunderstorm and the name Thunder just seems to fit him.” Vinnie agreed and they began calling the sloth Thunder.
Thunder began responding to his name. Whenever Vance or Vinnie said his name, he would turn his head toward them. Thunder, like all sloths, liked to hang upside down because that is the way they spend their lives, hanging from tree branches. Sloths do most things upside down: eat, sleep, mate, and give birth. Female sloths produce one baby a year. The gestation period, or length of pregnancy, is about five weeks. The newborn is about 10 inches (25 cm) long, and weighs about 12 oz (350g). It will stay with it's mother for about five weeks. Because of their upside down life, many of the sloth's internal organs (liver, stomach, spleen, pancreas) are in different positions from other mammals.
When either Vance or Vinnie carried Thunder, it would cling to them upside down. Looking at Thunder, you would see his upside-own face with its upside-down smile. Thunder was given a bath every week and his long hair always looked clean and neat. However, the hair of sloths in the wild does not look so clean.
Sloths have long gray or brown hair that blends in well with the surrounding environment, making it difficult for predators to see them. This hair curves in the opposite direction of most other mammals: from the stomach to the back. Their hair is often covered with a coat of blue-green algae during the rainy season. This algae provides camouflage.
Thunder was still not fully grown. But soon he would grow to adult size which would be between 1 ½ to 2 ½ feet, or the size of a small dog. The Giant Ground Sloth, the ancestor of modern sloths, lived before the last ice age and reached the size of the modern elephant. Sloths usually live around 10-20 years in their native habitat in trees in the rain forests of Central and South America. In captivity they may live up to 30 or 40 years.
Three months had passed and Vance and Vinnie had become used to having Thunder in the house with them. They took Thunder outside a couple of times a day to let it eat hibiscus flowers or any leaves that it liked. Their large acreage had a variety of trees and plants and the sloth found some of the leaves delicious.
In the wild, sloths eat leaves and buds. The two-toed species also eat twigs, fruits, and small prey. Their low rate of metabolism enables them to live on relatively little food. They do not have incisors and crop leaves with their hard lips. Their teeth grow continuously, as they are worn down by the grinding of their food. Two-toed sloths have two sharp pointed teeth in each of their jaws. These teeth look like, but are not, canines. The upper and lower teeth slide past each other and sharpen the blades so that they are always very sharp. Sloths don't drink but get their water from eating juicy leaves and licking dewdrops.
* * * *
One afternoon a large thunderstorm had moved into the area. There was lots of thunder and lightning. Vance and Vinnie were sitting on the porch watching the storm, when they noticed a young boy climbing up their stairs. The boy was carrying a very young sloth. Vance thought, I feel like this happened once before. The boy approached Vance and Vinnie and asked permission to speak with them. Vance nodded his approval and the boy slowly and hesitantly told them he had been walking in the jungle and came upon the body of a dead female sloth. The young sloth was clinging to it’s mother. He managed to pull the sloth away from the mother because he knew it would die of hunger or be eaten by a predator if he left it there. The boy said he knew Vance and his wife already had a sloth and he hoped they would adopt this young one too.
Vance and Vinnie looked at each other, then at the young sloth, and finally Vinnie reached out and took the sloth from the boy. Vance realized they now had two sloths to care for. They thanked the boy and gave him a few coins for having save the young sloth.
By this time Vance and Vinnie knew how to take care of sloths and they figured the two sloths would keep each other company. They decided to name the young sloth Lightening, because it had been storming when it was brought to their house, just like Thunder. Thunder and Lightening thought Vance. What a combination. Both he and his wife were very pleased that they now had two sloths – one for each of them.
* * * *
As the days passed by, Vance and Vinnie learned more and more about sloths. They discovered that sloths hardly move and they sleep 15 to 20 hours out of the day. When sloths do move, they are so slow it would take one month to travel about one kilometer. On an average day, sloths rarely move more than 40 meters. They take their time moving from once place to another and it doesn’t matter if they arrive where they want to go today, tomorrow or a week from now.
Sloths don’t like to hurry and normally they spend their lives in the upper branches of trees, hanging upside down and moving slowly from one feeding place to another. Sloths even eat slowly, pulling leaves and branches towards their mouth in slow motion. The reason why they move so slowly is to avoid predators. Birds of prey, like hawks and eagles, watch for sudden movements. So a sloth in slow motion will not be easily seen. This is also why most sloths are active only at dusk or at night; most birds of prey don't have good night vision. Sloths can move quickly if they need to, but they can't keep this up for long.
Thunder and Lightning were still young and had not been taught by their mothers how to find food in the jungle. Vance and Vinnie thought that once the sloths were older, they would take them back to the jungle but every time they took them outside and let them hang from the branch of a tree, neither Thunder or Lightening seemed to know what to do. They were too accustomed to living in the beautiful house that overlooked the ocean.
* * * *
A year went by and then another and before long, Vance and Vinnie became very attached to the sloths and the sloths liked living in the house. Vinnie bought a large stuffed teddy bear for each of the sloths and all day long they hugged the bears. They were given plenty of good leaves and hibiscus flowers to eat and they were even allowed to sleep in the bedroom on the king size bed during the day. So why would they want to hang from a tree branch?
Vance and Vinnie had thought about getting a dog, but they found out that sloths don’t make a lot of noise, like some dogs do, although they sometimes let out a cry or hissing sound. Also, they never chew up shoes or slippers like puppies or claw the furniture like cats. Vance and Vinnie enjoyed taking care of sloths and the sloths didn’t mind all the attention.
* * * *
Early one sunny dry season morning, Vance was having breakfast when there was a knock on the door. After taking a quick sip of coffee, he got up from the table and opened the door. There stood a young boy from the nearby village and he was holding a cardboard box. He offered it to Vance who peered inside and smiled when he saw a baby sloth. The boy said the mother sloth had been killed by hunters. Vance called for his wife who came running over. She sighed as she discovered the box contained a baby sloth.
“What are we going to do?” she asked her husband. He reluctantly took the box from the boy because he knew the boy either would not or could not take care of the sloth. And the sloth was far too young to survive without a mother. Vance realized that he and his wife were getting a reputation as an orphanage for sloths.
Vance and Vinnie decided to ask all their friends if they would like to take care of the baby sloth. They spent hours on the telephone calling everyone they knew and even people they didn’t know, but no one wanted the sloths, not even the zoo which had more sloths than they could handle.
Vance tried to think why no one wanted to care for a sloth and he concluded that it was probably because most people had never been around sloths and they thought it would be dangerous to have them in their house. Vance and Vinnie tried to explain to their friends that sloths are very good natured and as long as you are kind to them, they would never try to hurt you.
Sloths can defend themselves with the very long, sharp claws on their feet. Some sloths have two claws on their front feet and some have three. All sloths have three claws on their back feet. Thunder, Lightning and the new baby sloth all had two claws on their front feet and therefore they are called two-toed sloths. Sloth species also differ in the number of vertebrae they have. Three-toed sloths have nine while two-toed ones have six or seven. Also, three-toed sloths have a small tail and their forelegs are substantially longer than the rear ones. The two-toed sloths do not have tails and their front and back legs are closer to the same size. The two-toed variety also has a shorter neck, larger eyes and move more between trees.
Two-toed sloths like to sleep in tangles of lianas (vines) in trees, as do other arboreal (tree-dwelling) mammals such as squirrels. These tangles provide concealed spaces but also act as early warning systems against approaching predators. A two-toed sloth in a tangle is difficult to see, and then once located, hard to catch, because they wake up when the vines shake and either start to move away or face the opponent, attacking by slashing with claws, grasping and pulling the offender closer to be bitten.
They hiss loudly and make bleating noises when threatened. All sloths use their claws to cling to branches and also to protect themselves. Predators, beside people, include large snakes, harpy eagles and other birds. Also, jaguars and ocelots are a danger when the sloth is on the ground. On the ground it moves extremely slowly. Surprisingly, sloths are good swimmers. But the sloths main protection is their camouflage.
Vance and Vinnie told their friends that their sloths had never used their claws to hurt them. Despite all the nice things Vance and Vinnie had to say about the sloths, they could not find any one who would take care of the baby sloth. Vance and his wife decided to keep the baby sloth and they named it Hurry. The name Hurry was short for Hurricane.
Concerned that so many sloths were being killed by hunter, Vance and Vinnie decided to start a program to educate the public about sloths and how they were quickly becoming an endangered species. They visited schools, taking the sloths with them, and explained the habits and life style of the sloths to the children.
The school children responded positively and they in turn told their parents what they had learned about sloths. Vance and Vinnie did emphasize in their talks at the schools that sloths were not easily domesticated. Adult sloths could never be made into pets and even young sloths, although more easily domesticated, were difficult to care for because of their special diet.
The efforts of Vance and Vinnie began to have a positive effect on their community. There were fewer and fewer incidents of hunters killing the helpless sloths and the species were gradually making a comeback. Vance and Vinnie were pleased with the results of their efforts to protect the sloths. At the start of each new day, they look forward to caring for Thunder, Lightning and Hurry. All three sloths now live happily in the beautiful house which sits on a hill and overlooks the ocean.