Image credit: Costa Rica Vacation 2014-20 by wsilver, on Flickr. CC by 2.0.
Matt and I recently made our second trip together to Costa Rica. We had a wonderful vacation filled with tons of adventure. We spotted 118 species of birds, watched baby sea turtles bursting from their nests, and spotted spider monkeys and caiman in the rainforest. The trip was almost perfect. One thing happened, however, that I can’t get off my mind.
As we were riding on a tourist bus, our driver suddenly pulled over and our guide pointed out a large group of people standing on the side of the road. We got off the bus with the rest of the group to see what all the excitement was about. As we walked towards the group of people, we noticed a sloth slowly navigating some branches very low to the ground and right next to a fence by the road. Sloths are typically very difficult to see in Costa Rica. They like to hang out at the tops of trees where they are safe from most predators and they have an ample supply of their favorite leaves. Seeing one so close to the ground was unusual and exciting.
Who knows why this little guy decided to come down? Maybe he was trying to have his weekly constitutional (sloths only go to the bathroom once a week and have to come down to the ground to do so.) Perhaps he was trying to move to a better feeding spot. Regardless of the reason, I think the little guy immediately regretted his decision (or as immediately as a sloth can). The large group of tourists were crowding around him, shouting and laughing with delight, petting him, and taking selfies with their faces pressed up against his face.
I admit that part of me wanted to run over and do the same. Who wouldn’t want a sloth selfie? But as I looked closer, I noticed that the sloth was vocalizing and attempting to swipe at the people around him. He was clearly stressed. My excitement quickly turned to disappointment. I was disappointed in the tour guides who stood by and watched as this wild animal attempted to defend himself. I was disappointed in the tourists who didn’t have enough common sense to leave a wild animal alone. Most of all, I was disappointed in myself. I wasn’t brave enough to approach the large group of people, warn them that the animal was stressed and ask them to back off. Instead I settled for loudly telling Matt what I thought in the hopes that a few people around us would think twice about joining in.
Since getting on my soap box on the internet is easier than doing it in front of dozens of people in person, here’s my advice for keeping the wildlife you love to observe safe and calm:
- When observing wildlife, keep a respectful distance. If the creature you’re observing shows signs of distress, back off. If it tries to move away, let it go and don’t chase it. To an animal, you are a predator. Would you be comfortable with a bear chasing you just because it wants to “get a better look at you?”
- Never touch a wild animal, no matter how much you want to scoop it up and hug it senseless. Animals have teeth and claws and they know how to use them. If the risk of having your face chewed off isn’t enough to frighten you, then think about what you are doing to the animal. When you touch a wild animal, you contaminate it with chemicals (insect repellant, sunscreen), germs, bacteria and other allergens that its system can’t handle. You can wash animal goo off your skin with soap and water. The best an animal can do is lick the human goo off itself and ingest it.
- If you find yourself lucky enough to see a sloth in the wild, understand that their physiology makes it nearly impossible for them to appear outwardly stressed. Research has shown, however, that their heart rate can spike dangerously high from fear. They can’t run away but that doesn’t mean they enjoy being inches away from what they perceive to be a weirdly shaped predator that wants to eat them. They aren’t really smiling, they just have resting happy face.
If “hug a sloth,” is on your bucket list (it was on mine for years), I suggest crossing it out and replacing it with, “observe a sloth from a respectful distance in a safe environment.” The Sloth Sanctuary on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica (made famous by Animal Planet) offers this exact experience. You can tour the sanctuary and meet the sloths in their care, take a guided rainforest tour to see wild sloths, and even spend the night in their onsite inn! I haven’t been able to visit the sanctuary yet, but it’s on my list!