Jeff Rochte was your average Las Vegas, Nevada, native teen. Unsure of what direction to take after high school, he traded in the city lights, casinos, American restaurants, and his friends for one thing: the Aviaros del Caribe Sloth Sanctuary. It was a dream that grandparents, the founders and owners of the sanctuary, had many years ago. They recreated their bed and breakfast in Costa Rica into a place where they could rescue and foster sloths that were left motherless and injured after banana plantation, industrialization, agricultural companies and floods of tourists caused the environment to become a land mine of threats for the creatures.
Rochter, now 26, gives tours at Aviaros del Caribe, aiming to educate the public about the sloths’ endangerment due to loss of natural habitat. Cost is $25 per tour.
Aviaros del Caribe currently has approximately 135 sloths in total, 13 of which are juveniles, and seven of which are infants, according to Judy Arroyo, grandmother of Rochte and owner of the sanctuary.
The sloths arrive from all over Costa Rica.
“We mostly see firefighters carrying in sloths that have been electrocuted by power lines,” Rochte said. Others eat plants, flowers or leaves that have been intoxicated by the pesticides used by banana plantations.
Rochte begins our tour by handing a plate of greens to four adult sloths, some dangling upside-down from a synthetic tree branch in their room, others resting on bamboo chairs.
The first to be served is Millie, an 11-year-old two-toed sloth, who had slim chances of surviving when she came in as a baby. Then 10 weeks old, she was found near the beaches of Cahuita and arrived with her injured mother, who died soon after.
Millie was left alone, in the hands of the caretakers where she grew up within the sanctuary’s facilities.
Most sloths spend the first 10 months with their mothers before they can venture off on their own. During this period, they learn some of the basic rules of life.
“When (Millie) had recovered, we planned to release her. But when she sees a leaf or fruit, she’ll go over and reach for it, even if it’s toxic. She just wouldn’t know better. A lot of these skills about which trees are okay to pick from and which are poisonous are learned from the mother,” Rochte said. “She just didn’t know enough.”
Caretakers realized Millie would not survive. She could not distinguish safe foods from deadly ones, and would not move from tree to tree, opting instead to stay in the same one.
“Often times, sloths stay in a tree for only two or three days, tops,” explained Rochte. “They eat, rest, and then move to another tree, as eating too much from the same one could increase their risk of ingesting a toxic plant.” Since Millie was unable to leave a tree, the sanctuary caretakers were never able to release her into the wild.
Rochter then moves on to another sloth, Toyota, who occupies the three-walled room next to Millie’s. He earned his name for his ability to just keep going, no matter how harsh the condition. Toyota is a three-toed sloth who was brought in at 6 years old, found burned to a crisp on an electrical power line. Most of his arm, from his elbow to his hand, had completely burned off. Flesh dangled from the spot where his limb should continue, and he was violently affected by gangrene.
Veterinarians amputated Toyota’s arms. Now 12 years old, he dangles from fake branches in the sanctuary’s facilities by hanging off one arm.
We continue on to the baby sloth sanctuary. The young are in critical condition, most in cages and wrapped in blankets, seemingly fearful to peek their heads out or to allow visitors to get a glimpse of them.
Rochte explains the dangers the sloths face.
“People are always looking for new territories, so the government in Costa Rica keeps building power lines for them and incoming tourists,” Rochte said. “The sloths are electrocuting themselves. They get these horrible burns.”
Another problem arises from pesticides used by banana companies. “The ones that plant within this region continue to contaminate the water and soil with pesticides, then the sloths eat them. Sometimes the adults sloths can survive, and get away with being mildly intoxicated or getting a skin infection. But the baby sloths usually don’t,” Rochte said.
Photos by Lucy Valencia