Why you shouldn't handle wild sloths (2023)

Teachable Moments….What would you do if you came across wild sloths?

Why you shouldn't handle wild sloths (1)

At various times in my life I have worked as a teacher. Whether I was wowing students with the abilities of a spider monkey’s prehensile tail in Costa Rica or leading a trek in the Malagasy rainforest at night to search for aye-ayes…my favorite lessons were always those that occurred naturally through an experience we were all having together. Being able to relate a current situation to a really interesting fact usually results in better retention of that information. But also for the teacher, it’s a much more passionate way to express yourself…and in my opinion, a much more enjoyable way to teach.

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Last week, I experienced a similar teachable moment when we received a phone call about a wild sloth in distress. A group of tourists staying in nearby Manuel Antonio had been approached by a neighbor’s gardener holding an adult three-toed sloth and he was asking if they wanted to take a picture with the sloth. Luckily, these tourists knew immediately that touching and holding wild animals is a bad idea and instead of saying yes, they said “No!” and also asked him to please put the wild sloth back in a tree. They kept an eye on the sloth for a while and started to get worried that his behavior wasn’t quite normal and that maybe he was sick. He also had a very strange “shaved part” on his back and looked like he was injured.

Once we received this call, we immediately jumped into action and went to see how we could help. Upon arrival the sloth seemed pretty normal…curled up in a ball sleeping in the top of a palm tree…but obviously I needed to get closer in order to assess his health status.

I climbed a ladder and went all the way to the top in order to be within reaching distance. Moving very slowly and staying very quiet I was able to see that his eyes, mouth, fur, and muscle tone were all normal. In addition I noticed that his stomach was empty meaning he had just successfully taken his once a week trip to the toilet. Gently coaxing him to show me his back I discovered, as I suspected, that the shaved and wounded looking part that worried the tourists was just his normal male patch. Male three toed sloths have a very distinguishable patch of fur on their backs that is much shorter, softer and orange/yellow colored with a black stripe down the middle. It makes sexual identification really easy in this species.

(Video) sLOTH gONE wiLD...
Why you shouldn't handle wild sloths (2)

Happy to discover that he looked healthy and normal…I then started to look around to figure out if there was anything we could do to help him. What became very obvious as soon as I started to “think like a sloth” was that this male had no good way to get back to the trees that he could eat. He was stuck in a palm tree, surrounded by other palm trees, parking lots and houses. The good trees that he could eat and hide in were about 20 meters away. I know most of you might be thinking that 20 meters is nothing…but for a sloth, 20 meters is a big deal…especially if there is no easy climbing route. Sloths can’t jump, they can’t see very far away and they move slowly and deliberately. Each step uses up valuable calories that they can’t afford to waste. Wild sloths have survived for millions of years by being VERY good at efficient movements through the trees.

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Why you shouldn't handle wild sloths (3)

After a day of being handled and stressed out, I hated the idea of having to grab him again, but it became obvious that the best thing to do was get him back to where he was originally found…before he had been interrupted. Climbing the ladder again, this time with a towel in hand, I quickly grabbed the sloth, wrapped him in the towel and climbed back down the ladder.

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A few minutes prior to grabbing him we asked the gardener where he had found him and we identified a beautiful water apple tree with ample hiding and climbing spots that connected to many other trees including a guarumo tree with many yummy leaves for him to eat. Carefully carrying him over to the water apple tree, I placed him on the trunk and he immediately rushed (sloth style) up into the canopy and didn’t even turn around to say goodbye. He was probably so grateful to be back somewhere that he felt safe and hidden again.

Why you shouldn't handle wild sloths (4)

After ensuring the sloth’s safety and return to his territory we spoke to the gardener and explained why he shouldn’t touch a wild sloth again (unless in immediate danger) and how it is very stressful to be handled by people and can get them disoriented, lost and sick. We also chatted with the tourists who first reported the distressed wild sloth and I explained that the patch on his back was normal…and we thanked them for their help. Luckily this rescue was pretty easy and quick. There was no struggle and the sloth being helped was in good physical condition. But what was most important about this experience was the learning opportunity for this gardener, the tourists, business owners and any local people who may be reading. Through teachable moments like this, I’ve started to realize that our duty as wildlife rehabbers is not only to the wildlife that we rescue, but also to the community….we are educators and we have a chance to help make human lives better through education and by resolving human/wildlife encounters that no one is sure how to handle. Remember, leave the wild sloth handling to the experts and enjoy from afar.

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Why you shouldn't handle wild sloths? ›

Sloths are solitary creatures who want to be left alone, thus unlike household animals, they do not like to be touched. So, if you come too close for their comfort, they can be deadly and severely hurt people. How would they attack? They defend themselves by using their razor-sharp teeth and claws.

Is it safe to touch a wild sloth? ›

It is best not to handle or touch a sloth as they are highly sensitive creatures. Sloths are extremely sensitive creatures. Because sloths are highly scented animals, touching them can be dangerous. They can become agitated because of lotions and perfumes worn by others, loud noises, or inappropriate handling.

Should you handle a sloth? ›

Be mindful when visiting a zoo; only take 'selfies' if the animal approaches you, sloths should never be handled by the public, but do not handle or touch any animal unless under the supervision of an experienced zoo keeper, and always give animals the space to carry out natural behaviours within their enclosure.

Why can't you pet a sloth? ›

Regardless of whether the animal was rescued or taken from the wild purposefully, we can tell you with 100% certainty that any form of direct human contact is damaging to the health of ALL sloths.

Do sloths carry any diseases? ›

Sloths are hosts to a fascinating array of commensal and parasitic arthropods and are carriers of various arthropod-borne viruses. Sloths are known reservoirs of the flagellate protozoan which causes leishmaniasis in humans, and may also carry trypanosomes and the protozoan Pneumocystis carinii.

Why shouldn't you pick up a sloth? ›

Because sloths are solitary, wild animals, they prefer to be alone. They do not crave human attention like dogs or cats. Nor do they like to be petted, groomed, or bathed because these are not natural behaviors for them.

Has a human been attacked by a sloth? ›

Ramon showed Inside Edition her scar from the sloth bite and it turns out she is not alone as some folks who have played with the animals have posted about their experiences getting bit on social media. Ramon says despite what happened, she still loves the animal but doesn't want an experience like that again.

What happens if you hold a sloth? ›

They have found through research that sloths go through great distress if held or touched by strangers. The staff will hold them and bring them close to you but you cannot touch or hold them. It is still a great experience. Helpful?

Do sloths like to be petted? ›

Though they may appear just as endearing as our domestic pets, sloths maintain their natural instincts. Generally, sloths do not like to be pet, groomed or bathed.

Do sloths like to cuddle humans? ›

It's important to remember that just because a sloth likes to snuggle a tree does not mean they want to snuggle us! Except for raising their young, sloths are solitary, wild animals, and they don't need humans to go around trying to hold them.

Do sloths smell bad? ›

Sloths can not sweat (except the tip of the nose for two-fingered sloths) and so, unlike humans, they have no body odor. Sloths actually smell just like the jungle: fresh, green, and a little bit earthy. Smelling like the rainforest is a great way to hide from predators with a keen sense of smell.

Can a sloth move fast if attacked? ›

If you can't run, camouflage

As a result, sloths can't move rapidly and run away if a predator attacks them.

Do sloths carry rabies? ›

Wallach says he's never abused the sloths, but that bites are always a risk. "They're animals," he said. "People could get bit. They don't have rabies.

What are most sloth deaths caused by? ›

The fastidious ritual — nearly the only reason a sloth leaves the limbs of just a few trees — may be the leading cause of death among the sloths. More than half the deaths Pauli and collaborators documented during field research came at the claws and teeth of predators pouncing on sloths on or near the ground.

Are sloths OK with humans? ›

Due to their inherent lack of aggression, sloths are not a threat to humans. Sloths are solitary creatures who want to be left alone, thus unlike household animals, they do not like to be touched. So, if you come too close for their comfort, they can be deadly and severely hurt people. How would they attack?

Do sloths get preyed on? ›

Sloths are often hunted by predators such as harpy eagles, ocelots, and jaguars, who mainly rely on movement to track their prey. So, the algae-covered fur and motionless hanging, help sloths blend with their surroundings, making it almost impossible to detect them in the wild.

Can you hold a sloth at a zoo? ›

Sloths are wild animals, and they don't necessarily want to be touched by humans. When touching a sloth at a zoo, you must be with an experienced zookeeper.

Where can I hold a sloth in America? ›

Vip Sloth Experience

Now's your chance! Only at Wild Florida do we offer a one-of-a-kind, personal, hands-on experience with one of our two-toed sloths! During our VIP Sloth Experience, you get to hold a sloth on your lap while she snacks on some tasty treats (or maybe even takes a nap!) Reservations are required.


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