sloth training


Two-toed Sloth Training

In the comfort and safety of managed care, a two-toed sloth can live 30 years! So at the San Diego Zoo’s Hunte Amphitheater, we have concentrated on a slow, solid training plan with Majica, our two-toed sloth (see previous blog, Meet Our Two-toed Sloth). We began by building a good relationship with her. Once she was comfortable with us, we target-trained her. This is teaching her to touch her nose to our fist or the end of a target stick. You start up very close, only requiring her to move a few inches to connect with the target. Gradually you increase the distance, so eventually you can have her move anywhere you might want her to go.

Majica caught on quickly. She surprised us all when she started reaching out with a paw to pull the target stick to her nose. Since she knew the target was supposed to touch her nose, why not save energy by bringing the target to herself instead of herself to the target! Pretty clever, huh?

So we had reached the first goal of our training plan. But we still needed to develop a manner in which to respect her comfort levels yet move her out of her enclosure to share with Zoo guests. Remember, she does not like to be picked up or touched much. We had tried loading her onto a branch held between trainers. She did not like this mode of transportation: she would rush to one side or the other to disembark. This would put a trainer in harm’s way from those long claws and big teeth. Time to get more creative!

Majica sleeps in a milk crate. It resembles the crook of a tree in which she might sleep in the wild. It is her safety zone. The open holes in a milk crate give her good spaces to climb in and out with those long claws. After a lot of brainstorming we came up with a sloth taxi! We designed a large carrier crate that had an elevated milk crate built in. The crate is like one you might use for your dog with a top and bottom half. We stationed the bottom half of the crate, which had the built-in milk crate, in Majica’s enclosure. She immediately started sleeping in her new “taxi.”

Now we are in the process of teaching her to be comfortable being lifted off the shelf her crate is sitting on and placed upon a wheeled cart. The plan is to place the top half of the crate over the bottom half holding Majica and roll the cart onto stage. Once there we will have her climb out onto a branch for all to see this most unique animal.

Louella Miller is an animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo.

Watch video of Louella working with Majica, posted January 21, 2009


Meet Our Two-toed Sloth



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.