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What I learned from a sloth

Sloths are interesting creatures. They’re slow, but not as slow as you might imagine. They feel virtually weightless when you hold them compared to what your eyes tell you, and they are odorless. Their way of surviving in the jungle? Don’t let anyone know where you are.

Their manner of living and moving could teach us quite a bit if we, well, just slow down to their pace to take a look and listen. They are the perfect symbol for patience, planning and setting your sights on a goal, no matter how small.

Fort Linwell Port Royal Roatán sloth and monkey hangout sloths
The sloth we met on our most recent visit in January 2020

In June 2018 we took a trip to Roatán to search for homes and scout properties for our pending move to the island. We spent about half the time looking at properties and the other enjoying the beaches, restaurants and a few tourist attractions. One of those was Daniel Johnson’s Sloth & Monkey Hangout.

Fort Linwell Port Royal Roatán sloth and monkey hangout sloths
Joey and a sloth - on our visit June 2018

We visited the Sloth Hangout and took the tour. In addition to the sloths they have spider monkeys, white-faced capuchin monkeys, red scarlet macaws and great green macaws. But the sloths are definitely the star of the show. While most of the animals and birds are kept in cages, the sloths are literally just hanging around, free to come and go.

One of the coolest experiences I’ve had in my life was that day, meeting a sloth. I’ve known about them for as long as I can remember, however holding and seeing one in person was completely different than what I thought it would be. Though I expected the experience to be cool, I didn’t expect to leave with a little lesson on life. We could learn a lot from sloths.

I know about sloths from my grandfather. He was in the Army during World War II and was stationed in Panama, helping guard the canal, and his stories of living there included his platoon and their mascot and pet - a three-toed sloth. He would tell stories and show photos of his time there. My favorite was one showed the soldiers lined up, a gap between the middle two guys who were holding a long pole between them with a sloth hanging from it, peering at the camera.

I assume we all know about sloths, if nothing else we know sloths to be slow. It’s their thing, their gig, what makes them stand out in the world of the jungle other than their immensely mellow facial expression. And yes, just one expression, not plural. Tired sloth, happy sloth, surprised sloth…it’s all the same.

Fort Linwell Port Royal Roatán sloth and monkey hangout sloths
Scott holding the sloth in January 2020 - she's a bit wet, it had been raining a lot that day

So we were so excited to visit the Hangout, not just for the sloths, but generally for the tropical equivalent of a petting zoo at home but instead of goats and pigs and donkeys it was parrots, monkeys, agouti and white-nosed coati (not for petting), and, of course, sloths.

Fort Linwell Port Royal Roatán sloth and monkey hangout sloths
Our friend John on our visit January 2020

About midway through the tour you end up near the waters edge, the Hangout is beside the ocean in French Harbor, and beside a few mangroves. That’s where you'll find them. The guide shows you how to hold your arms, down by your side and across your stomach, hand over hand, creating a small cradle for their butt. Then he lifts the sloth by the arms, lays their long claws over your shoulders and lets them settle in. They hang a bit from your shoulders and rest a bit on your arms. They barely move. If they do it’s really just a slight turn of the head, one way or another, checking out the scene.

Fort Linwell Port Royal Roatán sloth and monkey hangout white-faced capuchin
Joey and one of the white-faced capuchins - visit June 2018

As they rest there you realize how light they are. Their fur is long enough to give the impression of more weight than you end up holding. And they have no scent. Another gift from evolution that helps keep them off the radar of predators sniffing around for a meal. Silent, no “meat” to speak of, and odorless.

It isn’t that sloths just move slowly. They move methodically and deliberately. They seem to be carefully considering and thinking through each move they make, but not as they are making it, but a few steps ahead. Their plan might not be too lofty, pun intended, or their goals might not be all that grand, but they keep their objective in sight and in mind and make their way, however slowly, towards it.

We had each taken our turn holding the sloth, completely delighted in the experience. I held her first, and then Joey. We were the last guests that would be holding this particular sloth for a while, so the guide asked if we’d like to take her to the tree near us and let her go. Of course we did!

Joey carried her over so she could grab the closest branch and make her way into the canopy above. She moved past that branch and across one of the monkey cages, and as she did you could see her gazing forward to the next branches and then the next and the next and so on. She wasn’t really looking exactly where she was grabbing at the time, or just the next branch, but where she’d grab on a few steps ahead.

Our guide pointed to the other side of the compound, past the monkey cages and over the roof of the main building…”She’s heading that way”, he said, “for a snack”. While they are free to come and go, they are fed and well taken care of. They don’t have any real reason to leave. And when there is a snack in the forecast, they move a little more quickly than you would expect. Again, in sloth terms, still pretty slow.

A sloth in the wild doesn’t get too many chances to make mistakes. Hiding for a living to stay alive doesn’t allow you to fall too often, or make noise, or generally lumber along oblivious to what’s around you. Patience, planning and being careful are the name of the game. Falling, time out of the trees, or taking wrong turns could be deadly for them in most other environments.

Fort Linwell Port Royal Roatán sloth and monkey hangout sloths
Joey and a sloth on our visit January 2020

In our lives, as humans, we can make a few mistakes, we can take the wrong path a time or two or more, and we can blunder along without paying too much attention to what's around us and still end up on our feet. We’re at the top of the food chain without any real predators.

But we sure can waste a lot of time and energy when we do. We end up turning around, retracing our steps, picking ourselves back up, fixing things we’ve broken by accident. Or dealing with consequences of our actions when we didn’t take the time to think things through, at least just a little bit.

We can also choose to set goals, to look forward and ahead. We don’t have to just look at the tiny bit of path in front of us and hope we’ve chosen the right fork time after time. We don’t always have to look at our feet to stay on our path as long as we are watching the turns and forks ahead. We can choose the overall direction we want to go and then keep choosing the twists and turns that seem to head us in that direction.

We might veer off here and again, and we might have to correct course, but if we know where we want to end up it’s a whole lot easier to get there than simply floundering around hoping what’s at the end is a place we want to be.

I guess what the sloth taught me was your goals don’t have to be grand, but knowing where you want to end up can be enough. Looking ahead and being prepared doesn't mean you have to be in a hurry, slow down or stop if you feel like it. Just hanging around is a fine way to spend the day and you can always pick up the pace if you want a snack.

Fort Linwell Port Royal Roatán sloth and monkey hangout scarlet macaw
Scott holding one of the Scarlet macaws

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