In Search of Elusive Sloths

Growing up, we kids liked to call each other uncomplimentary names like "three-toed tree sloth." It meant dull-witted, prehistoric, and other things we considered undesirable. Now that I'm living in the rain forest of Costa Rica with sloths for my neighbors, I'm rethinking that definition.

Right away, I discovered that sloths are not easy to find. The first year I lived in my tent in the forest, I saw not one. I knew they were in the trees all around me, but their grizzled coats and extremely slow movements made them invisible. The natives seldom saw them either, but they told me about the sloth's secret weapon: three long claws capping each foot, claws as much to be feared as the fer-de-lance snake hiding among the heliconias.

Late one day, urging my battered truck through the forest trying to reach home before dark, I found the narrow road blocked by a dead sloth. Grumbling at the delay, I climbed down to drag the animal out of my way. Then I thought, a sloth at last! And right at my feet. What a fine specimen, measuring 24 inches from the tail-less behind to the tip of its earless head, with a well-filled out body under thick, long hair that was as coarse as pig bristles.

Kneeling, I stroked it, moving back-to-front following the wrong-way growth of the hair. What a sensible arrangement for an animal that spends its life hanging upside down in a tree. The body-covering sloughs off the heaviest downpour as easily as a raincoat.

I scraped a hair with my fingernail to stir up the greenish algae that gives the dun-colored sloth a mottled pattern to blend with its habitat. I flexed a forepaw, marveling at the deadly claws, hard as horn and gently hooked for seizing an enemy with an unbreakable grip.

THIS sloth had not been dead long, I decided, tracing with my finger the dramatic black markings winging back from the meager nose. What an endearing expression, as if it were smiling. Where were the eyes? Bending closer, I saw them well-camouflaged by the facial smudges. Small and dark, they regarded me with a very aware look. I leaped backward without standing up.

"You're alive!" I gasped.

Not only alive, but unhurt, and in the process of crossing the road when I came along. Settling at a safe distance to wait, I felt like apologizing for invading the animal's privacy. Eventually, it cleared the road enough for me to drive the truck safely past in the dark forest night.

Soon afterward, when I was visiting neighbors, I noticed the old gray tree stump in their yard moving. Looking closer, I realized a sloth was clinging to the side. Don Luis roused himself from the hammock and joined the Seora and me to consider this problem. Their immediate fear was that the animal would climb their nearby papaya tree, loaded with heavy fruit, and break it down.

"Bring your machete," don Luis ordered his wife, his voice ominous.

I chose my words carefully. "With your permission," I said, "I'll take it to my place. There it will stay."

"Yes, you take it," tenderhearted Seora agreed. She fetched a horse lasso, they bound the sloth, and handed it over. Then they returned to the porch, finished with the matter. Lugging that 30-pound sloth at arm's length uphill was entirely my affair, all 100 pounds of me.

I set out on a trail that had grown longer since I came down it earlier. The sloth didn't cooperate. Whenever one of its dangling arms reached a branch, the claws locked on with such a ferocious grasp I had to break the branch in order to continue. Sweat poured into my eyes and soaked my T-shirt. I was acutely conscious of my bare legs within easy reach of the sloth.

I tried to lift it higher. My arms felt wrenched out of their sockets, but I locked my elbows and clamped my jaws with a tenacious determination, just as I imagined a sloth would. Finally I reached the spring near the tent. There I helped the sloth grasp a cecropia tree. Then I untied the lasso and stepped back.

In the following months, watching for, and finding, this sloth honed my sloth-sighting skills. Now, after a decade in the forest, my observations are few, but memorable. I've not seen another one on the ground. But recently I observed an adult hanging by its hind claws among the tree branches giving its body a thorough scrubbing all over with its front claws. It vigorously scratched the chest, back, each leg in turn, and then, more delicately, its nose and around its eyes. What lazy enjoyment hung there in the forest light!

As I continue living in the rain forest, I'm learning more about this unusual animal. I know how mistaken anyone is to use "three-toed tree sloth" as an insult, for the sloth is patient, calm, courageous, and tenacious. Now should anyone call me a three-toed tree sloth, I'd say "Thanks!" with a smile.

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