“It came out of nowhere,” said Gerald Richardson when asked how Buttercup the sloth has become a celebrity supermodel.
For more than three years Richardson has worked as a kind of volunteer consultant for the Sloth Sanctuary in Limón province, helping manage the organization. About six weeks ago during a visit, Richardson took a picture of Buttercup, the sanctuary’s star sloth, as she sunbathed in the private reserve. Then he posted the photo on Facebook.
“The thing just went viral,” Richardson recalled during a conversation with The Tico Times. Within a day, the photo had received about 1.5 million impressions.
Then Richardson received an astonishing email: a world-famous illustrator named Todd Selby wanted to use Buttercup’s image for a line of American Apparel T-shirts. The series would coincide with Earth Day and help raise awareness for tropical wildlife — sloths in particular.
“It was total happenstance,” Richardson said. “I was a little leery at first.”
But Selby was serious about his proposal, and he and the Sloth Sanctuary began a whirlwind correspondence.
At one point, Richardson said, there was some talk about dressing Buttercup in a bikini. Whether the idea was serious or not, Richardson put the kibosh on it.
After all, American Apparel has received criticism around the globe for its highly sexualized advertisements, which routinely feature very young-looking women posing suggestively in cinema vérité lighting.
The company dismissed former CEO Dov Charney in 2014 after a flurry of sexual harassment allegations. While no misconduct has ever been proven, critics regularly lambaste American Apparel for its sexual imagery.
Given the company’s controversies, Richardson wanted to ensure that Buttercup was represented in the best possible light. While Richardson is not a full-time employee and receives no payment for his contributions, he has frequented the Sloth Sanctuary for 10 years, and he now visits every month.
His brother is Daryl Richardson, who founded the Dallas World Aquarium in Texas, an urban refuge that also houses sloths and conducts sloth research.
Richardson wanted to make sure the Buttercup-inspired illustration sent the right message.
As it happens, Selby, the illustrator, worked as a cartographer in Costa Rica before becoming a world-renowned multimedia guru, giving him a personal connection to the country and its wildlife.
“It’s really in good taste,” Richardson said of the final design. “I was very happy with it. And it’s about this wonderful place in Costa Rica.”
Plus, 30 percent of proceeds from the T-shirt sales goes to the Sloth Sanctuary.
Earlier this month, American Apparel released a kind of teaser: Richardson’s photo of Buttercup went viral again, this time with the words, “Buttercup has a surprise! Stay tuned.”
For people who generally associated American Apparel ads with the aesthetic of snuff films, the wholesome zoological portraits were something of a surprise.
That surprise is now here: sloth fans can buy their very own T-shirt for $32. The illustration depicts a sloth clutching two vertical branches and smiling adorably.
While the drawing bears a resemblance to pretty much any three-fingered Bradypus, it was Buttercup’s glamor shot that sparked Selby’s imagination.
Buttercup might also be considered the Smokey the Bear of “lazy bears”: Her mother died when she was an infant, and a child found Buttercup in the road. The child carried Buttercup to Judy Avey-Arroyo, an Alaska native who is now proprietor of the 130-hectare Sloth Sanctuary.
Now 23 years old, Buttercup is the sloth that started it all. The sanctuary’s lodge is even called “The Buttercup Inn.”
“Everybody who knows about the Sloth Sanctuary knows about Buttercup,” Avey-Arroyo wrote to The Tico Times.
“I think people can identify with [her] special, peace-loving characteristics. American Apparel is working hard to revamp their promotional strategies, and what better model than Buttercup the sloth?”