Sloth Release Program

by Sloth on 08/17/2014

Do you have a sloth release program?
soft release enclosure 2We get this question often at the Sloth Sanctuary. Many of the rescued sloths that are brought to us are adults that have been injured by dogs, power lines, cars, etc., a tragic result of human encroachment into the sloth’s habitat. These sloths are quarantined and accessed for injuries and illnesses by our full-time veterinary staff. We care for their injuries and medical needs and monitor their rehabilitation progress. If they haven’t lost a limb, are paralyzed, or were blinded from their injuries, we then determine, after rehabilitation, if they are strong and healthy enough to go back to the wild. They are then placed into a “transition enclosure” located inside the forest near the sanctuary compound, where once again the sloth can feel the rain and the wind, and hear and smell their natural forest home. This process can be anywhere from one month to three, depending on the individual. When we determine they are thriving in this protected environment they are returned to their home territory. We have reintroduced over 120 rehabilitated sloths that were over one year of age when they arrived injured to the sanctuary.
It is much more difficult to release hand-raised orphaned sloths. In the wild, a baby sloth lives with its mother for at least 12 months, during which time it clings to its mother, and learns all the essential skills required to survive in the wild from her. One of the most important lessons to learn is which leaves are safe to eat. As a species, a sloth can eat from some 100 different tree species, and most of the leaves that sloths eat are toxic, a tree’s strategy to avoid over-predation of the leaves.  Each individual sloth has a “preference” of eight to 10 different trees, learning from, and “inheriting”, its mother’s preferences, thus minimizing a toxic load of leaves. Many other mammals learn safe food choices through trial and error – if they feel sick after eating a certain food they will avoid it in the future. The sloth’s digestion is very slow making it much more difficult for them to use the “trial and error method” of successful foraging. It can take up to 30 days for a single leaf to go through a sloth! If a sloth feeds from the same tree species for too long it risks overdosing on that particular toxin – and unfortunately they won’t realize it until it’s too late! We simply do not know enough about their natural diet to be able to teach this to the orphaned babies that are rescued and brought to the sanctuary. To complicate it further, in order to provide the baby sloths being hand-raised at the sanctuary with the best chance of survival, they are raised in a clean, sterile environment. However this makes releasing them even more difficult as they build up no natural defenses against invisible predators; the bacteria and microbes found in the rainforest. So much more research is required!
sloth_2We initiated a release program a number of years back but sadly, it was not successful. Every cloud does have a silver lining, though, and in this case it made us realize just how very little is known, and how much there is still to learn, about these fascinating animals!
To date, no one has ever documented the successful release of a hand-reared sloth to the wild through radio collaring or tracking.
This is not just a sloth-problem – it is unfortunately the case for many mammal species, especially those in which the babies spend such a long period of time with their mother – there is a reason for this large maternal investment! Despite generous funding, the development of release programs for highly intelligent and social apes such as orangutans and chimpanzees still remains a huge challenge. Even these quick learners never become truly wild after being hand-reared! They are often maintained on protected islands where they can be closely monitored and receive provisional food. A similar problem is faced by conservationists working with pandas and slow lorises, as they have yet to successfully introduce a hand-reared animal to the wild.
Backpack 4At the Sloth Sanctuary we are striving to achieve a release program for our hand-reared orphaned sloths and in order to achieve this, we are currently completing research into the diet and habitat preference of wild sloths. We realize that it is an unsustainable strategy to release animals back into an environment that still has the same dangers that caused them to need our help in the first place. To combat this, much of our work is focusing on determining and minimizing these threats. Furthermore, we are also working to discover a way for the sloths hand-raised here at the sanctuary to build up enough natural defenses to allow them to survive in the wild.
Until then, we provide a safe home for all the orphaned babies that are brought in to us. We are also hoping to place many of these hand-reared sloths in zoos around the world that specialize in conservation through education, to act as sloth ambassadors and to help raise awareness of the problems they face.


“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”- Margaret Mead

This week we would like to shine the spotlight on one of our most dedicated supporters and followers, Lucy Strausbaugh. Lucy has been bringing small student groups from Notre Dame Preparatory School for volunteer experience since 2013, and over the past few years she has generously donated both funds and her own time to raise awareness of sloth conservation. This week, she arrived at the sanctuary having purchased a brand-new digital microscope and hand carried it  from the US to us here in Costa Rica for use in our Sloth Hospital! This microscope will be a much needed diagnostic tool in our clinic, allowing us to analyze samples, identify parasites and determine the best course of treatment.
We decided to ask Lucy a few questions about her latest donation and the experience of working with us here at the sloth sanctuary:

How did you first get involved with the Sloth Sanctuary?

Lucy: Like everybody else on the planet, I saw that youtube video that went viral in 2011. The sloths simply spoke to my soul and I just had to come and visit.

What was that first experience like for you?

Lucy: Coming to the sanctuary for the first time was simply magical. Transformative and magical.

How did the volunteer experience influence your students?

Lucy: Working with the sloths was life-changing for many of the girls. I have brought students who had planned on being nurses and are now going to work in wildlife research – they changed their majors in college based on the experience that they had at the sanctuary!

Tell us about your latest donation and how you managed it!

Lucy: I contacted a lot of organizations to see if anyone would be interested in donating a microscope to the sanctuary, and although there was a lot of interest initially, nothing turned up. A week before I was due to fly out Costa Rica, I decided that I wasn’t going to let anything stand in the way of the sanctuary getting the equipment that it needs in order to help these amazing animals. It wasn’t an easy decision as I don’t have a lot of money to spare, but as soon as I had made the transaction I simply knew that I had done the right thing.


Sloth research at the Dallas World Aquarium

June 18, 2014

Sloth research at the Dallas World Aquarium  Last week, sanctuary founder Judy and biologist Becky travelled to Texas to visit the sanctuary’s sloth ambassadors currently living at the Dallas World Aquarium. DWA has provided an excellent home over the past 9 years for three three-fingered sloths and three two-fingered sloths that were all rescued by the sanctuary as […]

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Sloth Week 2014

May 31, 2014

Sloth Week 2014!!! We have been very busy at The Sloth Sanctuary again this week, although it is never quiet here! This week we’ve had a couple of a non-sloth guests who have been filming for Sloth Week 2014! That’s right, a whole week dedicated to the amazing sloth. Every day here is a sloth […]

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Earth Day 2014: Sloth Update!

May 29, 2014

Earth Day 2014: Plant a Tree – Feed a Sloth – Clean the Air   To celebrate Earth Day here at the Sloth Sanctuary, we decided to plant 80 sponsored Almond trees within the sanctuary grounds. Over time, these trees will help to reverse the impacts of land degradation, filter the air, reduce erosion, provide […]

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Earth Day 2014 – Plant a Tree & Feed a Sloth!

April 17, 2014

Earth Day 2014: Plant a Tree – Feed a Sloth – Clean the Air On Tuesday 22nd April we will be celebrating Earth Day here at the Sloth Sanctuary and we want YOU to get involved!  Earth Day is an annual event that is celebrated in over 192 countries worldwide, with the aim of promoting environmental awareness […]

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The Sloth Backpack Project

March 5, 2014

02 Mar- By Becky Cliffe It has been a rather un-slothful start to the new year, with a lot of progress being made on the sloth science front. Since Christmas, I have managed to tag an additional four wild sloths with tracking backpacks (including a mother with a baby!), and I am beginning to build […]

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Power Lines Shock Sloth

December 3, 2013

Operation Sloth Rescue It’s never easy when we get a phone call at the sanctuary telling us that a sloth needs our help. On this occasion, we were told that a beautiful two-fingered sloth had been electrocuted on the power lines and was in trouble. The gentleman told us he would collect the sloth and […]

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Houdini of the Sloth World

December 1, 2013

Madonna is the female three-fingered sloth with a baby that I tagged 3 months ago with a GPS tracking backpack. Whilst out in the forest this week searching for her, I began to receive very strange radio signals. Something was wrong. After a few hours of searching and hacking through the dense undergrowth, I stumbled across […]

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Abandoned Sloth Babies

November 4, 2013

One of a kind! When we wake up every morning at the Sloth Sanctuary, we can never predict what the day is going to bring. Friday the 1st of November was certainly no exception. I had just emerged from the jungle after monitoring Madonna when we noticed a MINAET (environmental ministry) vehicle pull into the sanctuary. Our hearts sank. This […]

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