Never Shake Hands With a Sloth

Never Shake Hands With a Sloth

Author: Jack Ewing

Everybody who visits Hacienda Barú wants to see a sloth, and their first sighting is always an unforgettable experience.
Mine was probably more unforgettable than most. “Don Jack, don Jack come, look.” Adolfo was standing beside a fallen cecropia tree. I walked over, and there it was, arms wrapped around the trunk, my first sloth. I thought my first monkey sighting was exciting, but this was phenomenal. It reached out toward me in slow motion and opened its three-clawed hand. Innocently I stuck my index finger in the hand, and in slow motion, it began closing.

“How cool. It wants to squeeze my finger. What a friendly gesture”. Ever so slowly but steadily, the long-clawed fingers kept closing. The grasp became tighter and tighter. I remember thinking it was becoming less of a friendly squeeze and more like the jaws of a vice clamping down on my finger. Removing my finger was no longer possible. A bolt of fear shot through my body. “It’s going to crush my finger completely, bone and all.” I didn’t know whether to pull as hard as possible, beat the sloth with my other fist, or remain calm. I was on the verge of panic when the strong hand stopped squeezing and leisurely relaxed its grip. Two seconds later, the fear left me, and my finger came in a flash.

Adolfo laughed. “If you want to touch it, you gotta grab it from behind. Stay clear of its hands”. We released it in the forest on a tree that Adolfo assured me was one that sloths like.

That occurrence occurred in the early 1970s, and I’ve seen a lot of sloths since then. Beginning in the mid-1990s, I guided a tour at Hacienda Barú, where we took people into the rainforest canopy by climbing ropes using rock equipment and techniques. In addition to the thrill, the time was notable for seeing sloths in their element, often up close.

One day a female three-toed sloth appeared in a neighboring tree on a branch that almost touched the ropes we were climbing. The visitors were delighted and took loads of photos. The next day she was still there, but even closer than the day before and hanging face up with a tiny baby lying on her belly. It must have been born the night before.

I became infatuated with the maternal care of sloth babies and read everything I could find. A couple of weeks later, I was climbing the tree by myself to inspect the rope attachments. I could see the mother from below and was delighted that I would pass within arm’s length of her. Arriving at her level, I could see that she was eating, chewing on leaves to the point that a green foam was forming at the edge of her mouth, and the baby was busy licking it up as fast as it oozed from between her lips. I was overwhelmed. I had just read about this the night before. Like all mammal babies, the sloth nurses its mother’s milk beginning almost immediately after birth. After a few weeks, it moves on to the next stage, which I watched, lapping up the green foam. Later it would eat partially chewed leaves, then young tender leaves, and eventually a variety of foliage like mom.

When the juvenile is about six months old, the mother abandons it in the area where it has been raised and with which it is familiar. This is not as easy as it sounds because the young one will probably try to follow. Mom is faster and more agile and can get away and into a different territory unfamiliar to the youngster, but both usually get a good workout before the kid gives up and turns back. I am still fascinated with sloths 45 years after that first and only handshake, or should I say, “finger shake.”

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