Sloths rescued from deforestation will debut Friday at Draper aquarium

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Loveland Living Planet Aquarium has acquired a couple of two-toed sloths that will be unveiled to the public on Friday. With the aid of two claws for their front legs and three for the back legs a female sloths readjusts from a mid day slumber. They've been adjusting to the sights and sounds of the aquarium for the last couple of weeks after being rescued from the South American country of Guyana due to habitat deforestation.

Draper • Wrapped around the branches of a hibiscus tree, a pair of two-toed sloths were getting psyched up for their debut Friday at Loveland Living Planet Aquarium.

Actually, they were sleeping.

“They do a lot of that,” said Steve Vogel, the aquarium’s director of zoological operations, as he peered up at the sloths resting comfortably amid the greenery of a rainforest aviary that is their new home.

Their old digs, the tropical rainforest of Guyana in northern South America, were lost to deforestation. These two sloths were among a group that was rescued and taken to a rehabilitation organization. It returned some to the wild but was unable to find suitable locations for others outside of zoos or aquariums.

“We worked for nearly two years to get the sloths,” Vogel said, crediting Scott Chambers, the aquarium’s curator of birds and mammals, with perseverance in pursuing the pair. “He’s a bulldog, a go-getter. He really doesn’t like the word no.”

“It was a matter of being at the right time, right place, with the right connections,” added aquarium spokeswoman Caroline Ralston. “The stars aligned.”

The brown-haired sloths arrived at the aquarium two months ago, beginning an incubation process that acquainted them with their new surroundings and allowed Vogel and his staff to do medical inspections — physicals, blood work, vaccinations — and to make sure they are eating.

True to their instincts, the sloths immediately (but slowly) made their way to the treetops in the aquarium’s aviary. Sloths don’t like to be close to the ground. Nothing good can happen down there, not when the curled-up shape of their clawed “hands” forces them to crawl along the surface like soldiers going under barbed wire with bullets whistling by inches overhead, Vogel said.

But up in the trees, those claws are handy for clinging to branches while hanging upside down. And moving as slowly as they do, sloths rarely rustle the leaves around them. That’s good for avoiding the clutches of the sloth’s primary predator, the harpy eagle, which has the largest talons of any eagle and can carry off sloths or howler monkeys weighing up to 15 pounds.

The aquarium’s unnamed sloths — one male, one female — will not have to worry about harpy eagles.

They won’t have much to worry about, really. Keepers like Rachel Blake will come along every day to feed them fruits and vegetables. The meal Blake delivered Wednesday featured yellow squash, zucchini, cooked carrots, cooked yams and, for a special treat, endive.

Visitors should not expect to see much gregarious behavior out of the sloths. “Play? Not so much. Their play is exploring rather than roughhousing,” Vogel said. But he is keeping an eye out for signs of romance between the two.

“I’m hoping, hoping, someday. Wouldn’t that be the coolest?” he said, noting that the aquarium’s participation in species survival plans would allow any offspring to be traded to other zoological institutions to allow further breeding with more genetic diversity.

The sloths will share the aquarium’s aviary with two keel-billed toucans, three Cuban iguanas and a pair of tortoises. “It’s going to be a little crowded, just like the rainforest,” said Vogel, who expects this mixture to inspire visitors, especially young ones, to fight for species such as sloths.

“Any time we can put the animals in front of people, you’re increasing its chances of survival,” he said. “You only protect what you love. And who knows, maybe one of the kids who walks through here will become the next Sylvie Earle or Jacques Cousteau [both renowned marine biologists]. You never know.”

The aquarium, at 12033 Lone Peak Parkway (about 500 West), is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets cost $20 for adults, $17 for seniors, military personnel, teens and students, and $15 for children. Toddlers two and younger get in free.