In the past twenty years, sloths have gone from one of the least-known, least-understood species in the world, to something of an internet phenomenon. Thousands of amateur sloth videos, some with several million views, are YouTube favorites. In particular, documentarian Lucy Cooke’s viral “Meet the Sloths” series was a huge hit. Cooke’s work was so popular that she was even invited to follow up her unexpected success with “Too Cute! Baby Sloths,” which aired on Animal Planet this past December.
The subject and site of almost all the sloth videos in existence, including Cooke’s, is the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica, also known as Aviarios del Caribe. Located just north of the mellow, reggae-infused Caribbean beach town of Cahuita, the world’s first sloth rescue operation has been providing refuge and rehabilitation for two-and three-toed sloths for almost two decades.
Judy and Luis Arroyo adopted their first sloth, the now world-famous Buttercup, after a deadly 7.6-magnitude earthquake shattered their homes (and much of Limón Province, where they had recently relocated from the United States) in 1991. When three little local girls brought them the tiny, orphaned animal, they called the San José Zoo for guidance. The zoo didn’t know anything about baby sloths. They frantically contacted other zoos and wildlife refuges throughout the Americas, but no one knew how to care for the creatures. Luckily for Buttercup, Judy’s family had run a pet store, and with that knowledge (and plenty of luck) managed to save the three-toed infant’s life.
Today, Buttercup is the huggable star attraction at the Sloth Sanctuary, opened by the Arroyos in 1997 and recently enfolded into the non-profit Sea Save Foundation. In addition to rescuing sloths, most of which are brought here after being electrocuted on power lines, hit by cars, or hurt by dogs and human beings, they are also the de facto world leaders in sloth education and research.
The Sloth Sanctuary is also one of the most popular attractions on the Caribbean Coast, staffed largely by volunteers. Your visit (highly recommended) includes an educational program and movie, a meet-and-greet with adult sloth ambassadors, and hopefully a peek at baskets full of baby sloths. For a small extra fee, you can enjoy a float through the Río Estrella delta, home to some 300 species of bird and several sloths that have been partially reintegrated into their natural habitat.
If they can’t make it to make it to the Caribbean Coast on the next visit to Costa Rica, sloth lovers finally have another option. Last year, Judy Arroyo’s daughter, Ursula Rochte, opened a new branch of the Sloth Sanctuary in Monteverde, joining the long list of wildlife exhibits for which the cloud forest community is known.