Sloth is not a sin

It was never planned this way but one family has dedicated itself to rescuing the injured and orphaned sloths of Costa Rica

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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Sloth Sanctuary, Costa Rica

Slowly. Just a little. He gradually opens his eyes. He looks around, lazily surveying the scene before him.

Presumably the tree is the same and the walls are the same. The blurry shadows of people seen through dozy eyes look a bit different.

But new people coming in here is normal. Everything seems in place and he closes his eyes again and drifts off.

This is life for a sloth here at the Sloth Sanctuary on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. It is the refuge for local animals that have been injured or orphaned and need some gentle care.

Sloth Sanctuary, Limon, Costa Rica
Sloth Sanctuary, Limon, Costa Rica

“It came on completely not under our control,” owner Judy Avey-Arroyo explains.

“We gave in to the sloths 21 years ago.”

Judy is American and she started the sanctuary with her late Costa Rican husband. It happened when they were setting up a hotel for birdwatchers – but animal welfare was never part of the original plan. It was all because of Buttercup.

Sloth Sanctuary, Limon, Costa Rica

“As we were building the hotel, Buttercup was rescued by some neighbour girls,” Judy points to the gentle-looking sloth hanging in a basket near us.

“Her mother had been killed by a car. They brought her here and we didn’t know what to do with her so we tried to place her where we thought someone would know more about sloths… and no one knew. No one wanted the responsibility so it fell to my husband and I.”

“And she thrived and two years later another sloth came, and then another one and soon we just kind of gave in to it and decided this is what we’re going to do, is rescue sloths and rehabilitate them.”

Sloth Sanctuary, Limon, Costa Rica

The sanctuary grew in reputation over the years. The plan to build the hotel for birdwatchers was put on the backburner and instead they opened their arms to these beautiful and docile natives of Costa Rica.

The Sloth Sanctuary is now the first place the locals bring injured animals they find. It means a lot of work.

Sloth Sanctuary, Limon, Costa Rica

“A normal day starts at six o’clock in the morning,” Judy tells me.

“My staff is here, they’re cleaning out the enclosures, they’re monitoring what the sloths have eaten overnight what they’ve eliminated, all those details are very important.”

“The sloths are then fed, cared for – my veterinarian is on duty six days a week. And between all of that we receive guests and show them around.”

Sloth Sanctuary, Limon, Costa Rica

Visiting Costa Rica’s Sloth Sanctuary

Today I’m one of the guests. I’ve turned up without a booking and it’s unusually busy with a local school group which has fundraised all year to come here. But a tour for tourists is also about to start and I join two other visitors on that.

The Sloth Sanctuary is a family affair. It’s Judy’s daughter who greeted me at the entrance and now it’s her grandson, Jeffery Rochte, who’s leading the tour.

He’s 28 years old and has spent the past 9 years in Costa Rica working at the sanctuary.

Sloth Sanctuary, Limon, Costa Rica

He introduces us to the sloths as if they’re also part of the family. In some ways, they are.

They all live together and experience each other’s highs and lows. Some of the older ones have been here since they were babies – brought in as young orphans and unable to return to the wild because they’ve never learnt to fend for themselves.

Sloth Sanctuary, Limon, Costa Rica
Sloth Sanctuary, Limon, Costa Rica
Sloth Sanctuary, Limon, Costa Rica

At the nursery we see some of the new arrivals. These small little bundles of fur and noses have come in for various reasons.

Some were healthy but alone. Others were injured or ill.

The biggest threats for sloths in Costa Rica are electrocution from powerlines, dog attacks, car accidents or, would you believe it, violence from children who don’t understand what they are.

“We’re encroaching into their territory and this is what’s happening to them,” Judy says with a tinge of sadness.

“They’ve survived 65 million years, withstanding ice ages and tropical storms and moving up and down the continents of the Americas and surviving. All of a sudden we come into the picture and they’re in trouble.”

Sloth Sanctuary, Limon, Costa Rica
Sloth Sanctuary, Limon, Costa Rica

Unfortunately it’s a story that’s all too common. The reach of man is sweeping aside millions of years of natural order.

Individuals like Judy Avey-Arroyo and her family are trying to restore some balance, though.

The Sloth Sanctuary receives no funding from outside organisations. The main sources of income are from visitors and private donations. Using that money and a lot of devotion, the sanctuary has reintroduced into the wild about 120 sloths over the past 15 years.

Sloth Sanctuary, Limon, Costa Rica

Over that time, Judy has come to understand the animal better than most people. But they still amaze her.

“They don’t obey the laws of other animals,” she says.

“They’re totally different from other animals. Their medical needs, how they survive in the wild is completely different. We can’t pattern or guess how they might react to different things.”

Sloth Sanctuary, Limon, Costa Rica

“What we’ve learnt is that they’re the original zen masters. They have gotten life down to a fine art. I mean, they lay in the branches and bask in the sun, reach out to pull a leaf to their mouth.”

“We think they’re from another galaxy,” Judy laughs.

Maybe they are… who knows? All we do know is that they’re here on our planet. For now.

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Visit Costa Rica but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

33 thoughts on “Sloth is not a sin”

    • No, I didn’t hold one. They seem quite comfortable with humans but I think it’s probably better for them not to have my sweaty little hands all over them! I did briefly pat one though… that was kind of cool!

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    • Ha ha – thank you for your insistence! If it wasn’t for you, I might not have made it there. But it was such a great place to visit and just cuteness everywhere! The sloths are so damn adorable!!

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    • I know what you mean – even though they’re just lazing around with their eyes closed, each one seems a little different. The carers say they definitely notice individual personalities in every single sloth.

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  1. I LOVE sloths. Like, seriously love them. I find them adorable and fascinating, and visiting the Sloth Sanctuary (and also seeing sloths at the Jaguar Rescue Center) in Costa Rica earlier this year was a huge highlight for me!

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    • I didn’t make it to the Jaguar Rescue Centre. Was there much difference between the two sanctuaries? Either way… you definitely get a good chance to see the sloths at this one near Limon!

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  2. Wow, absolutely impressive. These animal are defying our imagination. With no defense they are managed to survived for a long time. That for sharing this post. I will make reference to this place on my next article on Costa Rica.

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  3. The sloths looks really cute! I visited Costa Rica about 5 years ago and actually saw a sloth in a tree by the beach. This looks like a great place to visit 🙂

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  4. As far as I know the Sloth Sanctuary didn’t exist when I was doing my study abroad in Costa Rica in 1997. I would have loved to visit! It’s really incredible when you think about some of the oldest animal species and the things they have endured to make it to today.

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    • If it was there when you were in CR, I bet you would have spent every day there! The little guys were so chilled. I just loved being around them because they made me feel happy and relaxed. As you say – they’ve been through so much but it doesn’t seem to phase them!

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  5. Michael, that is quite an interesting article about a truly strange animal. Even if I am not sure if I would agree to call Sloths the original zen masters, they still must have mastered something as they managed to survive as a species from big ground animals until today…
    But it’s great to know that a place like the Sloth Sanctuary exists and that people like Judy are taking good care of them. And I am sure, between dozing off phases, the sloths also appreciate that the birdwatcher hotel never came into existence… 🙂

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    • Ha – you wonder if the sloths are ever awake long enough to appreciate anything. I get the feeling they quite enjoy a level of blissful ignorance… not that I blame them. There’s something about their existence that makes you a bit jealous 🙂

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  6. There has been reputable serious claims of abuse of these animals at this sanctuary. Because of a recent article in the DODO by former Vets who worked there I have started a petition to have this place looked into and how the animals are cared for. Read the petition and link to the article in the DODO here: https://www.change.org/p/costa-rica-s-environmental-agency-save-the-sloths-from-unscrupulous-sanctuary-in-costa-rica

    WARNING: Link to the article in the DODO is graphic. Photos of abused and neglected Sloths.

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  7. Coming to Costa Rica in March and plan to come to your sanctuary. Today I read an article on dojo regarding your sanctuary Horrible article about abuse of the animals that live there. Boy I would hate to think that that was true. Is there a government agency that inspects your facility? We started following your Facebook page and everything looks wonderful. But the way the article read you only use the healthy young sloths for your pictures and to show to visitors. I just want to make sure that you have to report to someone regarding the health and welfare of your animals before we visit. Thank you for your response

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    • Hi Peggy. Thanks for the comment. It has been a few years since I visited the sloth sanctuary (I am just a travel blogger and have nothing to do with it myself). I certainly didn’t see anything that would lead me to think there is animal abuse going on there. I would be very upset to find out that was the case. Please let me know what you think after you visit and speak to the people there.

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