While “why would I not want to hold a sloth?” might be the first thought that comes to mind, it's important to consider the wellbeing of a sloth before any photo opportunities.
First off, sloths are pretty amazing animals. While also being cute, sloths are incredibly strong, faster in water than on land, and we have them to thank for the historical spread of avocado trees! There are also many types of sloth, with the brown-throated sloth being the most common, and both the pygmy three-toed sloth and maned sloth populations being either endangered or vulnerable.
The Dangers of Handling Sloths
There are some considerable dangers that can come with holding sloths and taking “sloth selfies.” Here are a few:
1. They can cause the sloth undue distress
There has been research done that shows that sloths definitely do not like being held. When they are held, their heart rates increase and they are visibly more alert, indicating that being held by people can be very distressing and disorienting. Moreover, there are correct ways to (a) hold sloths and (b) to check to see if they are sick or injured. In these cases, it is best to call experts or animal rescue so they can manage the situation without causing too much stress for the animal.
2. Taking photos with sloths can take them out of their habitat
While there is a slim chance that the “sloth selfie” will include you climbing into the tree and hanging upside down next to the sloth, the majority of these photos will involve physically taking the sloth out of the tree. Believe it or not, the sloth was in that tree for a reason, be it eating or sleeping, and when they are taken from it, their normal activities have been disrupted. Additionally, some sloths can even be moved further away from their original position for the sake of photos. Given how slow they are, it would take a considerable amount of time to return on their own.
3. It can expose them to harm and predators
The large amount of time required to return to their original location means that they are exposed to harm and predators for that much longer. More than half of three-toed sloth deaths occur when they descend to the ground for a bathroom break around once every eight days. Each moment outside of their tree is a moment to become prey for another animal. In addition to this, given the extent of human encroachment, human environments can present a danger to any animal, let alone a sloth. They can be hurt by power lines, cars, and even dogs or cats.
4. They can actually harm you
This may seem surprising, but sloths are not entirely defenseless. Here is an account of a “sloth-scientist” at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute:
“In photos they look a lot like a teddy bear, but in reality they have sharp claws that can do some serious damage. They can move quick when they want to, and they are not defenseless. People always laugh when I tell them I have scars all over my arms from sloths, but it’s true. They can definitely hurt you.” - Bryson Voirin
If concern for sloths doesn’t caution you to think twice before picking one up, this should.
5. It can prompt others to take them out of their habitat
This is more of an abstract point, but it is perhaps more important than the previous reasons for not handling sloths. In the current age of social media, “sloth selfies” are typically less for future reminiscence than for posting so that others will see. Not to be left out, others will surely jump at the opportunity to take photos with sloth. If they don’t personally take sloths out of trees, others will and provide photo opportunities to tourists. This creates a harmful culture that encourages others to potentially harm sloths for profit and prestige.
How To Safely Appreciate Sloths
To be clear, this is not an argument for running away the moment a sloth is sighted, but rather for a well-meaning caution that considers the sloths first. It is true that some forms of wildlife tourism can be harmful to wildlife, but there are ways to celebrate and enjoy wildlife responsibly.
To do this, you can take sightseeing tours led by experts. This way, tourists can view sloths from a safe distance. Another way is to visit a sanctuary or wildlife reservation. At these locations, you can support organizations that are devoted to protecting sloths and their habitats while also getting the chance to get up close without harming sloths.
Remember, your phone also has a rear facing camera that allows for long distance photo shoots. The next time you are lucky enough to spot a sloth, be sure to stop and consider its well being first.