One of the most curious animals you could imagine will be a resident of the new Elephant Odyssey habitat at the San Diego Zoo. It lives virtually its entire life way up in the treetops, upside down. It only travels down to ground level about once a week to use the “bathroom”! But it will not be the first of its species to live at the Zoo. It is the marvelously odd two-toed sloth, and one has been living behind the scenes at the Hunte Amphitheater show area for some time now. I am one of the trainers fortunate enough to work with this unique animal.
There are basically two types of sloth. Our sloth, Majica, is a two-toed sloth; there is also a three-toed sloth. This name designation refers to how many “toes” are on their front paws. Both species have three toes on the rear feet. But when you look at a sloth you will wonder where the toes are! Each foot ends with 2- to 3-inch (50- to 76-millimeter) curving claws with no obvious “toes” to be seen. From our research, we found out that the three-toed sloth is rather docile. We saw video clips of people plucking wild ones right out of a tree and easily handling them. But the two-toed sloth is much more defensive. They do not like to be handled, and use those front claws like a Ginsu chef! They also have very big dagger-like cheek teeth. It was quite clear it was going to be a challenge to find a way to share this wonderful animal with Zoo guests in shows and at special events.
While working out a training plan, we spent the time learning about our new “family” member. At first, Majica did not like to be touched…period. But soon she was allowing us to touch and inspect most of her body for a fresh sprig of Eugenia. As we have built a relationship with her, she is becoming more comfortable with our light touches. She even began to respond to us calling her name when we entered her enclosure. She comes out of her nest box to greet us.
One of the most interesting behaviors we have witnessed is her “rain dance.” Whenever it starts to rain, she does laps around the roof of her pen! This is the only time she does this. And she maneuvers around her pen at a speed you would not expect of a sloth.
It has been exciting learning about this most unusual animal, and we have developed a training plan that will enable us to share her with others up close and personal.
Louella Miller is an animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo.