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Sloths are cute but don’t hug them for a selfie, animal activists warn: ‘Can break bones with their teeth’

Tempted to cuddle a sloth? Not so fast.

Despite how huggable the mammals appear, activists are warning animal lovers not to partake in the interactive zoo experiences, which have cropped up all over social media.

“The desire for proximity — to touch, to feel the immediate presence of animals — is very old,” Nigel Rothfels, a historian who specifically studies zoos, told The New York Times. “Perhaps we are hard-wired for it. But the access and demand have increased.”

Interactive animal encounters have become a point of contention for animal activists, who argue it is unethical and exploitative. Alamy Stock Photo
An increase in demand for the encounters has yielded more animal disease and deaths, experts warn. Alamy Stock Photo

Citing federal data, The Times reports that the number of USDA-licensed animal exhibitors doubled from 2019 to 2021, with more than 1,000 sloths evaluated every year over the last two years.

But the increase in demand has yielded more animal disease and deaths, as well as injuries to human oglers, which has prompted concern from activists who say that showing the possibility of interacting with exotic animals can be misleading to the general public.

The ability to touch, hug or snuggle an animal that is not domesticated might make people believes those animals could be pets or that there is no need for conservation efforts.

“Put simply, viewing animals in contact with people has the potential to influence negative beliefs about wildlife and conservation,” Sally Sherwen, the director of wildlife conservation and science at the Australia-based Zoos Victoria, told the outlet.

Not to mention, wildlife is not meant to be viewed up-close by humans. Sloths may be cute from afar, but they “have extremely powerful jaws” and “can break bones with their teeth,” explained zoologist and Sloth Institute director Sam Trull. A Michigan teen learned this the hard way when she was bitten by a sloth —drawing blood — last year at a pet store that advertised encounter experiences with the animals.

Sloths, which have become a popular encounter experience, can actually pose a risk to the general public who are allowed to hold or pet them, experts warn. Alamy Stock Photo

Trull said that the only way to ensure they will not be “aggressive to people is to rip them away from their mothers at a very young age” and introduce them to humans.

While some animals may enjoy human interactions in a controlled environment, experts decry the tourism that has arisen from picture-perfect photo-ops, calling it exploitative.

“We’re seeing more and more facilities, roadside attractions, that are just popping up out of people’s houses,” Michelle Sinnott, an attorney and the director of captive animal law enforcement at animal activist group PETA, told The Times.

SeaQuest, in Woodbridge, NJ, billed as a hands-on aquarium and zoo experience, is one such business that has fallen under harsh scrutiny from activists and regulators, per The Times.

Last month, New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection sent SeaQuest a lengthy notice of violations regarding diseased, injured or otherwise mistreated animals in their care. State records obtained by The Times also show that 100 animals — including two sloths — died under SeaQuest’s care in the NYC-adjacent location from 2019 to 2023.

In response to an ABC News investigation on the matter, SeaQuest claimed that it had received rescue animals that were already in poor health upon their arrival at the facilities.

SeaQuest has been under scrutiny for its practices in recent years. Alamy Stock Photo

Vince Covino, the co-founder of SeaQuest which offers interactive experiences at its locations nationwide, once said that he does not believe in the “look but don’t touch” approach to educational experiences when it comes to animals.

“There has been a longtime stigma — don’t touch the animals; don’t feed the animals. ‘Shh, they’re sleeping; they don’t want to interact with human beings,’” he said, per The Times. “I just didn’t buy it.”

Covino — who, The Times notes, reportedly has no formal background or training in biology, zoology or husbandry — has previously maintained that the animals at SeaQuest are happier in the controlled environment, where, according to The Times, some animals’ natural circadian rhythms and routines are interrupted for the entertainment of patrons.

The Times reported that, in an interview last year, executives at SeaQuest claimed their team had trained the animals to be awake and alert at times that were best for human viewing and interaction, not in-line with their natural instincts.

But things are beginning to change in favor of wildlife, following the viral spectacle of Netflix’s “Tiger King” in 2020 that prompted the passing of a “big cat” bill, which prohibited the ownership of large animals like lions, tigers and leopards.

Interactive encounters can send the wrong message to the general public about conservation efforts and animal welfare. Alamy Stock Photo

According to The Times, more accredited zoos are beginning to not allow keepers to even be photographed, while the Humane Society has called for a total ban on public interactive encounters.

“Our priority is that the animal has what we call ‘choice and control,’” Dan Ashe, president of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, which accredits institutions in the US and has revised its guidelines to focus on animal well-being and ask the seemingly forgotten question: “Are the animals happy?”

Written by New York Post