Can sloth’s behaviour indicate their emotional state and welfare?

Sloths are adapted for life in the trees, but they are increasingly being used as photo props for tourists. But what impact does this have on their welfare?

Annually hundreds of sloths are taken from deforested areas in Colombia and Brazil to be used in the pet trade and for food [1]. Sloths are also taken from the wild to be used as photo props for tourists. There are six species of sloth, brown-throated -three-toed sloths are the species commonly used for selfies, they have a quiet, docile nature, making it easier for people to take them from the wild and use them for photo props.

Previous research has found that when wild animals are handled, this can be physically and psychologically stressful for them [2]. However, to date no research that we are aware of has looked at the impact that direct contact with people has on the welfare of sloths. Behavioural assessments are a reliable and a common method for interpreting animal’s emotional states and welfare. Therefore, we decided to examine the sloth’s behaviour when being handled to help determine what effect this has on the welfare of sloths.

Sloth behaviour as an indicator of their welfare

Over several months, researchers (posing as tourists) travelled to both Colombia and Brazil to capture the sloths being used for selfies on film. Hours of footage was gathered, back in the office we spent many days watching the footage recording the sloth’s behaviour; this allowed an activity budget to be developed. We then compared the behaviour of the sloths when being handled to when housed in a semi-natural environment at a rescue and rehabilitation centre.

We found marked differences in the sloth’s behaviour. When the sloths were being handled, they were more vigilant, slept less, and performed behaviours considered abnormal for the species. We concluded that it is highly likely that some of the behaviours observed may be indicators of fear, stress and anxiety caused by direct physical contact with people. The behaviours observed likley indicate that when sloths are being used for selfies their welfare is compromised. Many of the tourists fuelling the demand for up close encounters with sloths do not realise the damage such activity causes to the health and welfare of the individual animals involved.

Further reading

1. Moreno, S.; Plese, T. The Illegal Traffic in Sloths and Threats to Their Survival in Colombia. Edentata 2006, 7, 10.

2. Idfwru, F.; Wkh, W. R.; Wdeoh, S. U. R.; Xvlqj, W. Idfwru, Frqwulexwlqj, W R Wkh, S U R Wdeoh, and Wudgh Xvlqj. 2013. “TRAFFIC BULLETIN Vol. 27 No. 1 Slow Lorises as Photo Props in Thailand (Pdf, 271 KB).” 2013.