Ever since actress Kristin Bell had a meltdown over a sloth on “The Ellen Degeneres Show” more than a year ago, public affection for the slow-moving mammal has grown.
Sloths have a Facebook fan page, a book, a ringtone, YouTube videos, a recent movie. They pop up in potato chip commercials.
Only a limited number of people have actually been up close and personal with these members of the Megalonychidae family.
“There he is,” says zookeeper Chris Ferris as he points to a spot in a towering oak tree. “Look where the limbs fork. Right where the branches meet is a sloth.”
“I would say about 2 percent of zoo visitors actually see the sloth,” said Ferris.
On any given day at the zoo’s swamp exhibit, visitors stretch back their torsos, their eyes up to the sky and search the trees for a sloth named Again. Spot him, and it’s like an Elvis sighting (sometimes you say you saw him even if you didn’t). His coat grows the same algae as that on a tree, making Again’s camouflage flawless.
And then there’s Noel.
“She prefers life indoors,” said Ferris of the zoo’s other two-toed sloth who rarely presents herself to visitors outside her man-made habitat.
Rick Atkinson, curator of the Louisiana Swamp Exhibit/Jaguar Jungle at the zoo, calls seeing Noel “a premium guest experience.”
The sight of Noel explains the ahhh factor.
She has a pink flat nose like Miss Piggy’s; she has soft brown, almost taupe, eyes; and she looks as if she is wearing a thousand blonde Barbie wigs. Noel’s hair is as bouffant as Dolly Parton’s — or is it more like the hairy coat of Star Wars’ Chewbacca?
It is thick and wavy and variegated in color, and there is a ton of it. Noel is pink and brown and blonde.
Here is a distinct personality. Otherwise, a sloth would not make a great animated character like Belt in Dreamworks’ 2013 3-D animated film “The Croods.”
Noel, a Hoffmann’s Two-Toed Sloth, arrived at the zoo with no teeth, making her, in the eyes of sloth-lovers, even more adorable. And at the Audubon Zoo she has developed an unusual attachment to a milk crate. She and Again are the only sloths residing at the zoo.
“We’re lucky to have an approachable sloth,” said Atkinson, who introduced Noel as she lounged in her concrete habitat with a door that opens to the outside.
When she occasionally greets guests, the 13-year-old sloth hangs upside down from a tailor-made jungle gym. The inverted position is preferred by sloths, which eat, sleep, mate and even give birth this way.
“Many, if they die while hanging in a tree, never fall to the ground,” says Ferris of the mammal that can live up to 30 years.
Sloths come down from their trees occasionally. On this day Noel is lying on her back eating a fresh tomato, the juice and seeds running down the sides of her furry face.
When a human hand is offered, Noel hooks her two curved claws around the person’s wrist and pulls the human arm closer for sniffing.
“She is antisocial, but affectionate,” says Atkinson.
Perhaps it is the absence of teeth that makes Noel so receptive to humans.
She does have the usual molars in the back of her mouth that sloths use for grinding their food. But she is without sharp incisors used for harvesting leaves off trees and for fending off predators, should the threat arise.
Josephine Martin’s first sighting of a sloth was in the animal’s natural habitat in Costa Rica. She traveled there as a little girl with her parents.
“I saw a mother and her baby fall out of a tree, and it took the mom, with the baby on her back, a long time to climb back up,” said Martin. “Now I see sloths all over the Internet. They’re really hot right now.”
Their appeal, says the 21-year-old sloth fan, is a combination of contrasts.
“They are weird and alien-like, and cute and cuddly. And dangerous,” she says. “They may be cute, but you can never pick up a sloth. They have very sharp claws.”
Sloths are billed as the “slowest mammal in the world” — but not so fast.
They move less than a foot a minute. But never underestimate a sloth’s reflexes in certain circumstances.
“The sloth’s slow movements are so as not to attract predators, but if there is a threat, they can have a lightning-fast reaction,” says Atkinson, who knows that the huge curved claws can bring a predator right to the sloth’s teeth. And “the teeth are razor sharp and ripe with bacteria.”
But in addition to their cuteness factor, sloths just might carry a message or two for a fast-paced, multi-tasking world.
“Slow down,” said Lucy Cooke, founder of the Sloth Appreciation Society, in Time magazine.
The British filmmaker reinforces the message in her recent publication “A Little Book of Sloth,” which is filled with pictures of baby sloths from the world’s largest sloth sanctuary located in Costa Rica.
“Patience,” reiterates Atkinson. “Eat what’s readily available. And avoid crowds.”
In the sloth’s world, and perhaps in ours, words to live by.
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