Welcome to Sloth Town, a visual journey by Suzi Ezsterhas
Welcome to Sloth Town, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a brightly colored surf town in the South Caribbean of Costa Rica. In Puerto Viejo, it is not uncommon to find sloths awkwardly climbing along fences or under the eaves, hanging out in bars, and generally making themselves at home. The locals like them. Traffic stops for them (when it can), tourists take pictures, and most of the locals have a wildlife rescue center on speed dial.
The town is more known for its surfing than for its scientists, there’s no industry other than a bit of tourism, and the roads are a mess. As the rate of development accelerates and the concrete jungle expands, the remaining trees are starting to disappear. The urban sloths of Puerto Viejo are losing the only things they need for survival.
The sloth mom at the Café
Stop in for a cup of coffee at Café Rico while admiring their resident, a wild sloth who often takes shelter in the café’s kitchen when it rains. Café Rico’s beloved sloth surprised everyone when she showed up on the kitchen shelf with a newborn baby. It boggled my mind that wild sloths could make themselves so at home in such urban environments in Puerto Viejo.
Undoubtedly vulnerable, Café Rico’s sloth is fortunate to be surrounded by sloth-loving staff members that do their best to allow her to rest peacefully and quietly – wherever she wants. They don’t mind her climbing on the rafters, or hanging out above the bathroom sink. And much to the delight of The Sloth Conservation Foundation, they bark fiercely at tourists that get too close to her
A town of dogs
In fragmented habitat, when sloths have to come to the ground to get from one patch of trees to the next they may encounter many dangers. Domestic dogs that are a danger to sloths include feral and free-ranging strays, as well as those that are cared for by humans as pets.
And it’s not just sloths that are threatened by domestic dogs. Over 180 different species of wild animals are now threatened by dogs and at least 11 are now extinct because of our canine companions. After cats and rats, domestic dogs have become the third-most-damaging mammals – and yet this fact has received almost no media attention.
Tourists and Cantinas
Another danger to sloths when they come to the ground is harassment from tourists. Often these are well-meaning, sloth-loving travelers. In excitement (or often in an attempt to get the perfect selfie) they often crowd the animal, make a lot of noise and even reach out to touch the fur.
This is Nacho, one of the resident sloths at Tasty Waves Cantina, another sloth-loving business in Puerto Viejo. Nacho likes to feed on the almond trees surrounding the bar and the owners, Bryton and Lydia, make sure their patrons allow him to feed in peace. Tasty Waves is also a huge supporter of The Sloth Conservation Foundation and see the sloths as an integral part of local tourism. As much as Nacho is loved, Dr. Rebecca Cliffe suspects that his urban life brings hardship.
Bizarre places to be
Dr. Rebecca Cliffe and I found some urban sloths in some pretty bizarre places but this one took the cake. The Sloth Conservation Foundation received a report from a community member that a sloth had crossed a very busy road and climbed into a fruit stand. We have no idea why the sloth went there but when we arrived we found her clinging to the sink faucet. As more and more sloths are displaced by deforestation, SloCo is finding them in random places in town.
Around the world urban wildlife can be found living in some pretty filthy places and urban sloths are no exception. Several sloths live in the trees at the sewer in the town of Puerto Viejo. One would assume that these sloths are exposed to human pathogens and pollutants, but no one knows for sure. These sloths are being monitored by The Sloth Conservation Foundation’s Urban Sloth Project. In order to photograph them, I spent much time tromping around some truly disgusting and stinky areas, something that the SloCo team must endure every time they check in on them.
SloCo suspects that one of the reasons why the sloths are living there is because it is one of the few places in town with no humans. No human in their right mind, except for us crazy sloth people, would ever go to such a place
The saddest postcard
During my urban sloth shoots, we found sloths in some extraordinary situations and this was, by far, the saddest one. The Sloth Conservation Foundation received a report of a sloth sleeping in a crack between two buildings, one of which was an actual drug house. Miraculously this sloth was able to carve out an existence in this environment, feeding on the trees on the property and then sleeping in his little crack.
Every hotel has a sloth
After hanging out in drug houses and sewers we finally found some urban sloths hanging out in nice places, including luxury hotels! Our favorite was a little boutique hotel next to the beach, not only because it was dreamy to hang out there but also because it was a kind of safe haven for the sloths living there. Guests often see sloths casually walking on the pathways and feeding in the many trees on the hotel’s property.
Scenes nobody prepares you to deal with
Working with urban wildlife is an emotional rollercoaster. This heartwarming scene very quickly turned devastating. Dr. Rebecca Cliffe and I were photographing a mother and baby sloth that were slowly climbing down a tree. We were so wrapped up in their adorableness that we didn’t notice two men creeping up behind us.
They were clearly very drunk, and aggressive, and started talking about taking my camera gear. We immediately started to retreat to the truck, and the men then turned on the mother sloth and began harassing her. They taunted her, yelled and screamed, and tried to fist pump her as she froze and put her arm up to defend herself and her baby (typical sloth behavior when threatened). When Becky and I tried to intervene they threatened us. They had machetes and we knew they were dangerous so we had no choice but to back off. Vehicles passing by were stopping briefly but no one was willing to help, due to the danger of the situation.
We of course called the police but knew they would take ages to respond. The men escalated to whipping the sloth with some kind of clothing or rag and at that point, I nearly had to physically restrain Becky from getting out of the truck and lunging at them. Luckily they eventually lost interest and wandered off, and the sloth climbed back up the tree to safety. Both mom and baby were physically unharmed but clearly traumatized
One morning during my urban sloth shoot Dr. Rebecca Cliffe took me to meet some of her favorite sloths being studied in The Urban Sloth Project. We arrived to a horrific scene of all of their trees chopped down. Even more tragic, after searching we found a few of the sloths in the nearby area, now displaced and homeless.
One sloth was pacing back and forth on a power line, clearly distressed, with nowhere to go. Under Costa Rica’s Forestry Law, cutting down any tree requires permission from the government regardless if it is on private or public land, but this kind of illegal deforestation is occurring at an alarming pace in the South Caribbean. SloCo reports incidents like this, but sadly the government rarely takes action against the offenders.
The Urban Sloth Project
As the rainforest canopy is replaced by corrugated tin rooftops, and houses grow where trees used to be, the planet’s slowest mammals are struggling to adapt and coexist in an increasingly urban world. In 2020 The Sloth Conservation Foundation began a five-year-long research called the Urban Sloth Project to study how urbanization affects sloths.
“Humans aren’t going anywhere,” says Dr. Rebecca Cliffe. “We need to find ways for humans and sloths to coexist. Can we really live side by side? Can we give sloths the space they need and still provide for developing communities?”