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.