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An adorable visit to the sloth sanctuary

As our trio stepped off of the rickety bus on Highway 36, we were greeted with the humid Caribbean air. We headed south past an elderly Tica selling fish strung from a wooden pole, and passed a yellow, car-sized traffic sign depicting the animal we had come for – a sloth.

Entering through the gates of the Aves del Caribe Sloth Sanctuary, we walked past manicured lawns, guest lodges and a life-sized replica of a prehistoric giant ground sloth. In the main house, we met the owner of the sanctuary, Judy Arroyo.

Arroyo and her family have been sloth caretakers since 1991, when a group of local girls brought them an abandoned three-toed sloth. After deciding to take care of the furry ball of cute, the Arroyos settled on the name Buttercup. Now 20 years old, Buttercup has become the face of the sanctuary. Visitors can see her as she sits in a hanging wicker chair, relaxing out on the patio of the main house.

Arroyo led us from the main building down a path to “the residence,” where it was impossible to keep from smiling. Countless sloths napped in the warm afternoon, while others climbed around or munched vegetables. Originally, there was only one “residence,” but sloths have been brought here continuously over the years, requiring additional enclosures.

A tricky situation

Many of the 132 sloths at the center were brought in as babies. Although the sanctuary aims to rehabilitate and release them, that sometimes gets tricky. The most critical learning period for sloths is their first year of life, and with no mother to teach them lessons on how to survive in the wild, many babies must become permanent residents, Aroyo says.

As we continued our tour through the residence, one of the sloths grinned at me. I bent down to get a closer look at the creature, and it began to climb towards me. Soon I was staring into the eyes of the most carefree animal I’ve ever seen. I almost expected it to comment on the nice weather we were having. After a few minutes, I forced myself to pull away and rejoin the group, still smiling.

Since the sanctuary never turns a sloth away, the number of animals has been increasing. Arroyo and her staff have used this as an opportunity to study both the two and three-toed species over the years, and they are even writing a book on sloth physiology. They have discovered so much about sloths that other organizations, such as the Colombia-based sloth research center, Fundación AIUNAU, call them for advice.

Like family

After we left the last residence and headed back to the main house, it became obvious that Arroyo considers each sloth a member of her family. She spoke to each one with the tone mothers use with their children, almost cooing. Each resident of the sanctuary has a name and a story, and Arroyo knows all of them.

Randy, for example, was competing to court a female when he fell from a tree. Judy’s motherly instincts kicked in, and she ran to save him, catching him and breaking her arm the process. Weeks later, Randy managed to fall again, but this time Arroyo wasn’t there to catch him, and he broke his own arm. The clumsy creature ended up needing surgery, resulting in metal plates being implanted.

Next, our group climbed the wooden steps of the main house and entered Arroyo’s bedroom, which adjoins the nursery. Inside, one of the staff members carefully fed goat milk to one of the young sloths. Through a process of trial and error, Arroyo has found that this milk is ideal for sustaining the babies – one of many discoveries the sanctuary has made.

Becky Cliff, a zoology student from Manchester University in the U.K., spent 18 months working at Aves del Caribe collecting research on wild sloths as part of her Ph.D. She attached a device called “the daily diary” to the sloths to record information on their movement and environment. “Hopefully, armed with this knowledge, we will be able to design a functional rehabilitation and release program for the sanctuary,” she writes on her blog,

Educating people

As the Aves Del Caribe Sloth Sanctuary continues to better understand sloths, Arroyo says, it is education that will ultimately protect the animals.

She’s heard stories of people throwing rocks at sloths in trees to bring them down and attempts to sell baby sloths: to whom, she isn’t sure. But she’d like to see more respect for the animals. 

 At one time, Arroyo’s sanctuary worked with the Environment Ministry’s education program as well as with the Standard Fruit Company to increase awareness, but the program lasted only two and a half years, then ran out of money. The sanctuary doesn’t have the funds to continue caring for the sloths and push education on its own. “Right now we’re just working really hard to take care of the sloths that we have,” Arroyo says.

A pending partnership with Discovery Channel will definitely help, Arroyo says. She is in negotiations with the U.S. television channel to have a documentary filmed at the sanctuary. The filming will take about a year, and the production is scheduled for a 2014 release.  

Going there

From San José, take Highway 32 through Guápiles to Limón. Turn south at the sign for Cahuita/Puerto Viejo. Aviarios del Caribe is approximately 31 km south of Limón; after the yellow sloth crossing sign, turn left into the Sloth Sanctuary. Driving from San José is three hours.


The sanctuary currently offers two types of tours: The Buttercup Tour (4 years and younger: free; 5-11 years old: $15; 12 and older: $25). It includes: A one-hour guided canoe ride through the bayous of the Estrella River Delta where you may see wild sloths as well as other inhabitants of the rain forest. Watch an award-winning video “Hardly a Deadly Sin” by filmmaker/conservationist Jeri Ledbetter. Learn more about the extraordinary sloth through a fascinating presentation on its natural history, from the prehistoric Giant Ground Sloth to our present-day tree sloths.

You also get the opportunity to meet and photograph some of the permanent residents, including the world-famous queen of the sanctuary, Buttercup, and meet the orphan baby sloths. You can also take an optional, self-guided walk through the two well-maintained jungle trails. Open to the public Tues.-Sun. (closed Monday), gates open at 8 a.m.; last tour begins at 2 p.m. A new tour begins every hour on the hour. A reservation is not needed.

The Insider’s Tour ($150) includes: A guided canoe ride with their expert guide and boatman, Cali. Also includes everything from the Buttercup Tour. In addition, the tour comes with a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the Slothpital, where visitors are allowed to see incubator babies. Arrival time is your choice, and each tour includes either breakfast or a light lunch with Buttercup. The tour is approximately four hours duration. Open for tours Tues.-Sun., closed Monday, only two Insiders Tours per day, so you must reserve in advance. Two options include:

1. Breakfast Tour

•    Arrive at Sloth Sanctuary at 7 a.m.

•    7 to 8:30 a.m. – Canoe with Cali

•    8:30 a.m. – Breakfast with Buttercup

•    9 a.m. – Buttercup Tour (with other visitors)

•    10 a.m. – Behind the Scenes

       (with your own private guide)

•    11 a.m. – Visit to the Incubator Babies Nursery

       (with your own private guide)

2. Lunch Tour

•    Arrive at sanctuary at 11 a.m.

•    11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. – canoe with Cali

•    12:30 p.m. – lunch with Buttercup

•    1 p.m. – Buttercup Tour (with other visitors)

•    2 p.m. – Behind the Scenes

      (with your own private guide)

•    3 p.m. – Visit to the Incubator Babies Nursery

      (with your own private guide)

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