Slothful: Lethargy is Not Acceptance and Silence is Not Consent

by Laurel Petrides
15 November 2023

Millions of years ago, sloths roamed the earth as twenty foot tall silent giants – one of the world’s largest roaming land mammals. Over centuries, they receded into the trees to become the inconspicuous, passive creatures we know today. The Creature Conservancy presented us with Poco the Sloth, a perfectly anthropomorphized specimen with an abundance of hair, dainty claws, and a fondness for grapes. Poco and his kind evolved to be slow moving, nocturnal, quiet, nimble, and a master of camouflage in order to escape predation in the jungle. All these adaptations were violated in the broad light of day as he was hung helplessly from a branch and presented to twenty eager college students. Despite the sloth’s claimed love for showmanship, we were warned not to touch his face or he may bite, but we touched everywhere else.

This adamantly calls into question the idea of consent. Sloths’ lack of voice and quick body movements diminish their ability to consent to human actions. Meanwhile the minds of the audience hold a wealth of anthropomorphized images from popular films such as Ice Age, The Croods, and Zootopia. Further, their status as a cultural symbol for relaxation is often utilized by tourist companies. We have collectively, if not unconsciously, consented for display on behalf of
sloths. The animal’s anatomical disadvantages combined with their anthropomorphization in the media ultimately and ironically dehumanizes them when in our presence and humanizes them when outside it.

Evolution of the Sloth

Sloths are a proud member of the Bradypus genus, meaning “slow-footed” (Hayssen 2008). Modern sloths evolved out of the ancient Megatherium, or giant ground sloths, who existed over 30 million years ago (Delsuc 2019). During this era, sloths weighed over 4,000 kilograms as compared to the modest 2.5-8.5 kilogram of sloths today (Delsuc 2019; Pujos 2012). Ground sloths, like their modern descendants, were a primarily herbivorous prey animal. Their size was their greatest defense mechanism to keep predators at bay and most were only killed when small and young. One of the only predators not deterred by their size were humans. In fact, it is thought that a combination of human hunting and climate change is what brought about their extinction 10,000 years ago (Delsuc 2019; Larmon 2019). Human’s history as a top predator of sloths helped influence selection of avoidant adaptations and a small, concealed existence. For thousands of years, sloths have been reserved. They evolved only to avoid detection by predators, including humans. Adaptations make them hard to spot in the wild, but once in the hands of people, their biology renders them speechless.

Fewer than 4% of mammals contain species that are both arboreal and herbivorous (Pauli 2014). Sloths are highly unique in their methods of living and self-protection. Their ability to spend the majority of their life off the ground is key to their survival. Over half of adult sloth deaths occur when a sloth is near or at ground level, typically to defecate (Pauli 2014). They spend so much time suspended upside down, their hairs have even evolved “transverse cracks, which allow the hair shaft to become saturated with rainwater, and which algae then colonize and grow hydroponically” (Pauli 2014). This adaptation grants sloths a soft green color that perfectly blends them into the rainforest canopy. The caretaker at The Creature Conservancy made sure to emphasize that sloths are the slowest moving mammals on the planet. This sedated lifestyle allows them to metabolize slowly and ensures they don’t slip on wet branches hundreds of feet in the air. Their solitary and nocturnal lifestyle prevents detection from predators who hunt during the day and are attracted to sound, movement, and animals in packs. Lastly, the caretaker noted their inability to make noise after one year old. In more fatalistic scenarios, such as when anthropologist Radhika Govindrajan witnessed goats being sacrificed, voice is a vital defense. When witnessing the execution, Govindrajan heard one that “moaned repeatedly, his tone increasingly desperate” and she grew “sick with anxiety as [she] heard his fear” (Govindrajan 2018, 33). Even though the deathly consequence was unchanged, the outcry of the goat allowed it to communicate with human witnesses. Not only was Govindrajan able to recognize its desperation and dread, it also ignited an empathetic anxiety that rebelled against the injustice. Although heavily promoting unique and lovable traits of Poco the Sloth, the caretaker concurrently reminded the audience that Poco cannot fight back. The descriptions of harmless adaptations created a sense of ease that we can touch without fear, but their emphasis also reminded us that Poco is devoid of defense and is thus devoid of choice.

Author Bénédicte Boisseron powerfully states that the main difference “between the exploitation of humans and animals […] is that humans can speak for themselves while animals do not have access to human language or human actions to fight for their cause” (Boisseron 2018, 3). It is clear that sloths evolved to not be heard, seen, or touched. Everything in their nature incentivizes them to hide. Humans often attempt to look for consent when interacting with animals, but sloths are missing key expressions that humans can understand. Sloths are unable to warn people with their voice and move too slowly to show physical distress. With their bellies up and hands stuck to a branch, they are even less so in a position to rear up and signal a human to back off.

Anthropomorphization of the Sloth

When introducing the animals at The Creature Conservancy, the caretaker proudly admitted that they are “anthropomorphizing these animals to the hilt” mostly because “the more like us they seem the more you will care about them”. This is a noble reason, but surely an unfair one. To garner appreciation for a species by making them “like us” is to forget that they are not like us. Poco has his own ways of expressing himself that we cannot understand and does not
trigger instinctual empathy. In fostering appreciation, the Conservancy is unintentionally promoting a culture of disrespect. The workers painted a sloth caricature of Poco from the very beginning. The wild animal was given an endearing pet-name and we were told of his fondness for finger grapes. The guide emphasized the thickness of the sloth’s fur, the plants that take residence upon their backs, the ability they have to live most of their life upside down, and the way they tread cautiously to avoid slipping. He contrasted Poco against packs of noisy monkeys, making Poco seem shy and innocent in comparison. The sloth’s sharp teeth were only mentioned prior to petting him, as a gentle warning to avoid his face. Beyond their teeth, sloths also have powerful arms and long claws that the workers failed to mention in their effort to not compromise Poco’s image.

Playing to the Conservancy’s advantage, much of their audience were primed with a pop-culture image of sloths. The movie franchise Ice Age first premiered in 2002, starring Manny the Wooly Mammoth and his misfit friends who band together on many icy adventures. One of said misfits is Sid, “the lovably goofy sloth who steals the show” and serves as “the epicenter for the humor” (Strickler 2006). Sid sports an expressive lisp and bonds the group together with his wholesome displays of affection. In 2013, The Croods came out as another prehistoric film with a lovable sloth side character. The movie is about a family of neanderthals trying to survive in a world fraught with dangers. Eventually the Croods encounter a newcomer whose only company is a sloth, named Belt, who hangs around his waist. Belt is about the size of a cat, with large green eyes, and lives only to help his human companions. Finally, the 2016 film Zootopia takes place in an anthropomorphic world where a bunny is trying to make it as a cop in the big city. The film was wildly successful, with the personified animals earning the movie six trophies at the Annie Awards, a Golden Globe, and a profit of over $1 billion (Associated Press 2017). One of the most beloved characters in the show is Flash Slothmore – the fastest sloth at the DMV, whose painfully slow movements are the scene’s punchline. These modern films all combine to offer an image of sloths that is cute, lovable, and goofy – at best a companion and at worst a sluggish worker.

A further anthropomorphization of sloths appears in tourism campaigns as a symbol of relaxation and peace. In 2021, the President of Costa Rica declared “the new national symbol: the sloth, the friendly and peaceful animal that is an international benchmark for animal protection” (TCRN Staff 2021). Even in a country that holds extensive sloth habitation, a “friendly” and “peaceful” disposition of sloths is emphasized by the President himself. From a conservation perspective, it would make sense to warn not to approach sloths despite their lovable appearance. Nevertheless, the President labels sloths as “friendly” when they are solitary and reserved creatures still capable of defending themselves. Playing off the tranquil stereotypes, a premier Costa Rican travel agency released an advertisement starring a live-action sloth singing a modified version of the song, “In the Jungle The Mighty Jungle”. The furry sloth spends the entire time hugging a branch and singing lyrics such as “you seemed so hurried” and “you need some time away” (Zúñiga 2021). Even more famously, Costa Rica launched a “Gift of Happiness” Campaign with a talking animated sloth as its spokesperson. The campaign was giving out free trips to “the happiest country in the world” while the laidback Mr. Sloth promoted the wonders of Costa Rica from a branch in a nonchalant voice. Mr. Sloth reached such popularity in the Americas that Anderson Cooper, an American broadcaster, even utilized the campaign as a prize on his show (Zúñiga 2021). The public association of sloths to friendliness, peace, and happiness renders wild, undomesticated sloths as approachable as household pets.

Sloths in the Conservancy and Consent

The Creature Conservancy, although it mostly protects animals that would otherwise be abandoned, is essentially a zoo. The caretaker even noted that they follow the same protocols as a zoo but “like to think of [themselves] as an education center”, as reflected in their motto “conservation through education”. In the 1900s, when zoos began to be fazed out, changes were made “prompting citizens to rethink their privileged places on the planet and restoring animal populations at home and abroad” (Uddin 2015: 3). This is a similar approach to The Creature Conservancy as they attempt to prompt connection from human to animal to the greater species. Not all animals at the Conservancy are officially endangered, but most suffer the effects of climate change nonetheless. This is a tragic reality of the world we live in, but that does not make Poco responsible for representing his entire species. In the context of forced copulation in conservation movements, researcher and professor Juno Parreñas asks “what kind of life is deemed worth living […] when their lives come to stand in for the entire species? How are these kinds of lives determined, and by whom?” (Parreñas 2018, 85). These same questions must be asked for Poco as humans dictate the way he lives, which often combats his every nature. The sloth is, in conflict with his nocturnal biological clock, forced into the open, stripped of his green camouflage granted by wet forests, and called to be harassed by the same species that killed off his ancestors. The name of conservation should not and does not grant consent on behalf of Poco. This one sloth does not have a responsibility to suffer for his species or participate in human projects against his will.

The reactions of animals in response to human handling at zoos has been extensively researched. Largely, the response of an animal is altered by “the nature of the interaction” along with “previous experience with humans, temperament and motivational state, genetics and species” (Sherwen 2019). Sloths, as with most undomesticated animals, likely don’t appreciate any “nature of interaction” with humans unless it is to be fed. Moreover, although workers in the Conservancy treat their animals well, many animals were rescued and likely have human-centered trauma. It was also found that visitor behaviors that are “active, loud, fast, and unexpected” may “be more disturbing to captive animals than quiet, passive visitor behaviours” (Collins 2023). The disposition of the Conservancy workers can be accounted for, but the behaviors of everyday visitors varies widely. This is especially true as the Conservancy welcomes individuals and groups of all ages. Although positive visitor experiences at zoos have been shown to promote learning, conservation, and animal welfare, negative experiences can be detrimental (Sherwen 2019). Cows afraid of humans have lower milk yield and poultry afraid of humans have “reduced egg production, growth and product quality” (Sherwen 2019). Further, high visitor numbers, regardless of nature of interaction, are associated with “lower frequencies of foraging, grooming and play in chimpanzees, […] more time inactive in pumas and less time swimming in little penguins” (Sherwen 2019). This means that, even if Poco and other animals aren’t afraid of humans, human presence is still a negative influence. Ultimately, “if visitors are perceived by zoo animals as fear provoking or stressful stimuli, long term exposure to visitors could be a source of repetitive acute or chronic stress” (Sherwen 2019). Animals, especially prey animals, are wired to fear potential predators and assume danger. It is highly likely that sloths, a master of solitude, are provoked by the presence of humans even if distress is not visible.

During the visit to the Conservancy, signs of distress and the consent of animals was not called into question at all. Even in the goat execution studied by anthropologist Govindrajan, a ritual of consent was performed. During this, “a mixture of uncooked rice and water was […] sprinkled on the goats’ backs” and the animals shaking it off “was read as a sign that the goat had consented to his own death” (Govindrajan 2018, 33). If the goats fail to shake, then the process is repeated until they do so and thus consent. Although clearly the goats cannot understand what they are consenting to, nor would they agree to it if they did, the idea of consent is still considered even in the darkest of contexts. During the demonstration with Poco, after learning of his love for finger grapes, the audience watches him decidedly refuse to eat more. The caretaker finds this odd, but moves on and precedes to show Poco around the room. For a creature of such limited expression, it would seem that the refusal of grapes is the most clear sign of discontent that he could muster. Poco lacks the voice and dynamic body language to reject people, so rejecting the grape seems a sufficient alternative. While being displayed and touched by students, Poco is not offered another branch to crawl to or even a pause between pettings. Even more noteworthy is the audience’s lack of hesitation before touching a wild animal. Whether prior to touching other people or petting a domesticated pet – humans are taught to ask or hesitate as we gauge a reaction. With wild animals, most people are taught to not engage at all. This combination of Poco’s actions and societal teachings should have made a consensual mindset precedent in the Conservancy. Instead, the audience had no inhibitions because the caretakers had consented on behalf of Poco and so visitors were not even asked to doubt Poco’s willingness.

Ultimately, “sites of popular culture and environmental education generate scripts that define, circumscribe, and limit how nature is understood” (Rutherford 2011, xi). The Creature Conservancy tries to tailor the narrative in a way that fosters connection and promotes conservation, but it can still take away autonomy from animals. In emphasizing conservation, people are made out to be the saviors. Innocent sloths are meant to only be grateful, not entitled to the freedom of existence we claim to want to give them. This feeds into the idea of the power of categorization and how “the labels we assign to animals in our lives – pest, pet, experimental subject – affect how we treat them more than the size of their brain or whether they experience happiness” (Herzog 2011, 222). When we label a sloth both ‘wild’ and ‘touchable’, we create an object of desire that supersedes our instinct to truly determine what makes them happy. We lose the ability to discern consent at the same time that Poco the sloth loses the chance to grant or withhold it.

As the Creature Conservancy promotes an atmosphere where the human voice overrides the will of the animal, consent becomes null and void. This is less likely to be questioned in the context of sloths due to their nature as quiet, slow-moving creatures, despite the fact that they developed these features as a defense. Further, popular culture anthropomorphizes sloths through films and advertisements to be harmless, lovable, friendly, and relaxed critters. This garners our adoration and respect as we view these animals from afar. The true effects of this skewed perspective only becomes clear in spaces conducive to actions that may violate the will of an animal. The treatment of sloths and all creatures like Poco, where consent is an absurd desire, will eventually “render ‘real’ animality fugitive, the remaining animal a mute object, and humanity at an embarrassing loss” (Uddin 2015, 2). Sloths are already muted and when we fail to even attempt to listen, they become even more so. This not only robs them of their consent and their wildness, it also deprives us of the willing presence of what is truly wild.