Working from home is the new normal for many people — and for Raquel Cruz Alpizar, it’s meant moving three unlikely new housemates into her spare room.
Since coronavirus restrictions took hold, she’s been caring around the clock for Kate, Leticia and Futbol.
They’re three-toed Bradypus variegatus sloths, a species described as having “a face that appears to be smiling”.
“Seeing them every morning when I wake up, I say: ‘Wow, I have the best job in the world.’ It’s incredible,” Raquel says.
But the job of taking care of sloths from home doesn’t come without a few household adjustments.
“Sloths need structures made from tree branches to be able to rest, move and feed naturally. They cannot be in a cage or a kennel,” Raquel says.
So Raquel — a veterinarian with a sloth sanctuary in Panama — modified her guest room to suit them, replacing furniture with branches and baskets.
Every morning, armed with a pair of scissors and a machete, Raquel makes her way down some forest trails near her house.
She collects Cecropia leaves and flowers — food for the sloths.
Kate and Leticia climb trees twice a day in the backyard.
“Then in the middle of the morning I take them to the backyard to sunbathe and do a little bit of exercise, like climbing the mango tree that I have at home, or letting them walk on the ground,” Raquel says.
They repeat the routine outside again in the afternoon, and then they return to eat inside.
The blow-up swimming pool in Raquel’s backyard also comes in handy.
Futbol is Raquel’s favourite of the sloths.
“His name is Futbol because some kids started kicking him and playing football with him,” she says.
“He came [to the sanctuary] completely paralysed.”
He’s now mostly able to climb around but still has issues with his right hand — and the pool is now forming part of his rehabilitation his therapy.
“Swimming is one of the things that the Bradypus variegatus love to do, and they are really good at it,” Raquel explains.
On sloth watch, around the clock
Raquel uses a webcam to keep an eye on the three sloths throughout the day.
“They are sensitive to suffering from stress, so it is better to minimise contact,” she says.
“Using the webcam has been beneficial for them because we avoid entering the room unnecessarily. I keep the webcam connected with a motion sensor, and every time they move, I receive a notification to my cell phone and I can see what they do.”
The sloths aren’t Raquel’s only housemates — there’s also her husband.
“He is the happiest in all of this,” she says.
“He is also a veterinary doctor so he understands this passion for animals.
“When I returned from work every day, I always told him with a smile how each sloth and each animal was, so it’s as if he knew them all.”
Deep in the heart of the rainforest
I first met Raquel in Panama a few months ago — before the unfolding pandemic forced me to return to Australia a bit earlier than planned.
A taxi took me away from Panama City’s towering skyscrapers and down a narrow road engulfed by thick rainforest, into the heart of Soberania National Park.
“What are you going to see here?” the driver asked me.
“Sloths,” I replied, but I was met with silence — so I added the Spanish word for sloth.
“Ah, perezosos,” he excitedly exclaimed, deep crinkles forming in the corner of his eyes.
After crossing a bridge connecting the Chagres River and the Panama Canal, I arrived at the Gamboa Sloth Sanctuary and Wildlife Rescue Centre, and was greeted by Raquel.
The sanctuary was opened four years ago by the non-profit Pan-American Conservation Association (APPC), and it has since looked after both two-toed and three-toed sloths.
“Our first goal as an association is to rescue animals, rehabilitate them, and return to them to the wild,” Raquel told me.
“But the sanctuary focuses on education too.”
Sloths end up at the sanctuary for a range of reasons, but the most common is deforestation — and its consequences.
“People are building more everyday … but the expansion is making forest islands in the city,” Raquel said.
“And that fragmentation of the forest makes the animals go outside to find food because they don’t have enough food.”
Raquel showed me a seven-year-old sloth called Angel, who was attacked by a dog as a baby.
“She was the first rescue we did. She was only a week old, a tiny baby,” she said.
“We tried to release her three times, but she came back. She was super skinny when she came back, and it seems like she doesn’t like to find her own food.”
Iris, another two-toed sloth, was brought to the sanctuary because of illegal trafficking.
Another sloth, Churchill, came from an area in Panama with a condensed sloth population due to urbanisation. That resulted in inbreeding, affecting his claws.
Sloths aren’t witches: busting common myths
Workers at the sanctuary have to bust the odd myth too.
“The first common myth is that sloths are witches,” Raquel said.
According to an educator at another sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica, that may have something to do with the high-pitched mating calls of sloths in the wild, which sound like a woman screaming.
Sloths let out high-pitched screams while in heat, which may contribute to the witch myth
“The other myth is that they eat the Cecropia and it’s like a marijuana for them, that’s why they are slow,” Raquel added.
“They are not slow because they eat that plant, they are slow because they have a slow metabolism.”
And while the Spanish word for sloth is interchangeable with the word lazy, Raquel says they aren’t the laziest animal in the world.
“Koalas are the laziest animal in the world. They can sleep between 18 and 22 hours a day. Sloths are the second laziest animal,” she said.
Days after my visit to the sanctuary in early March, it had to close its doors because of coronavirus restrictions.
Many staff are now forced to take care of the animals from home.
Raquel says the loss of visitors has also impacted on funding for the sanctuary, which will have a ripple effect into the future.
Like many other people who are also working from home, Raquel doesn’t know when things will go back to normal.
“The world situation with Covid-19 has brought us all to a new reality and lifestyle, so for now everything is uncertain,” she says.
“What is certain is that as a team we are all in the APPC committed to each of these animals, and those animals that will come later.”