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, 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 Audubon Zoo 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. BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo does not have a sloth.
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.
Rick Atkinson, curator of the Louisiana Swamp Exhibit/Jaguar Jungle at the Audubon 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.
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.
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 sloths use for grinding her food. But she is without sharp incisors used for harvesting leaves off trees and for fending off predators, should the threat arise.
Sloths are billed as the “slowest mammal in the world” — 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.”
In addition to their cute factor, sloths just might carry a message or two for a fast-paced, multitasking world.
“Patience,” reiterates Atkinson. “Eat what’s readily available. And avoid crowds.”
In the sloth’s world, and perhaps in ours, words to live by.