Guest commentary by Kira Pedersen  (July 2023)

I recently visited a mobile zoo exhibit where, among other animals, I met a sloth for the first time and it wasn’t fun. While it was a miserable experience for me, it was undoubtedly worse for the sloth.

Wild sloth in the trees where it should be.

The traveling animal show was set up on a quiet Sunday in a small-town municipal building. It was held in a drab, boxy room, windowless with fluorescent lighting and tiled walls. On entry it was difficult to reconcile this space as a venue to encounter live, exotic animals, as there was nothing reminiscent of the natural world in the room. Instead, the bright colours of the various signs and merchandise for sale at the door presented a strange blend of civic banality and carnivalesque side show.

Reptile displays were lined up along one wall, with the obligatory information placards stating the animals common and scientific names, as well as their natural habitats. There were also a few sentences about behaviours in the wild, conservation status and other assorted facts, but they were all things any child could find online in a minute or two. The information seemed to have little or no relation to the specimen found on the other side of the glass. Those animals were lodged into corners or awkwardly wound around displays, surrounded by plastic foliage and all silent and unmoving.

There were also a number of mammals present, including baby wallaroos (a relative of kangaroos), sugar gliders and African crested porcupines. They were kept in open enclosures with low fencing and some wood shavings spread on the concrete floor. Visitors could easily lean over the partition and were encouraged to engage directly with the animals – holding them, patting them, and peering into the homemade cotton bags that were slung around the fence, containing the sleeping or hiding baby wallaroos.

At regular intervals different animals were brought up to a stage which was the focal point of the room. They were displayed in various manners for the spectators. The reactions from the animals ranged from clear resistance, such as the rushing and bristling porcupine and the desperately hiding sugar gliders, to more difficult to discern reactions from the reptiles, who seemed either resigned or helpless to react in a meaningful way. Snakes and lizards were handed to every member of the audience who wished to hold the them, passed around like heavy accessories to try on. I’d read somewhere about snakes and their potential to harbour diseases, such as salmonella, and to infect people who touched them, but I didn’t see any hygiene measures in place and no one seemed to have thought about it.

From the booming presenters on the stage, the story was one of rescue. The animals who made up the mobile zoo collection were portrayed as the lucky few. They spoke confidently and at length about the unsuitability of all the attendant animals as pets, and explained that they were mostly relinquished pets that had the good fortune of landing in their experienced, caring hands, but I didn’t think the animals were lucky at all.

Significant time was devoted to commentary on the lack of essential animal care know-how among many pet owners, and the sub-optimal conditions often provided for exotic pets (reptiles in particular). However, this thoughtful animal welfare lens was not turned on the present circumstances, which appeared to include continual travel, makeshift and substandard housing, unwanted handling by the public, frequent stage shows appearances, loud and sporadic noises, bumps and knocks, and interrupted sleep. It was difficult to imagine that the animals were anything but continually stressed and deprived of anything natural to them as mobile zoo denizens.

And then there were the sloths: The stars of the event, and their circumstances seemed particularly miserable. There were two present, one who spent it’s time hanging from an artificial tree-like structure placed on a sort of modified porters luggage stand, which was displayed at intervals from the stage. When it was the sloths turn to make an appearance on the stage an employee would hold food out to it in different places to encourage it to slowly keep moving from artificial tree limb to limb.

The second sloth sat huddled in a corner of a small enclosure, facing away from the people who were paying to pet and observe it at close quarters. Its head was tucked down, so all that was visible was its small, hunched back. An employee stayed in the enclosure and spoke with the paying customers, who crouched down by the sloth and stroked it’s back. Even when no visitors were present the sloth stayed in the same spot, in the same hunched position, but would on occasion slowly raise an arm, haltingly wave it about, and then bring it back down again. It looked like a sadly futile wish to escape from the present circumstances. When I got home I did some reading and found that sloths often make this gesture as a sort of last ditch attempt to try to ward off danger, as it makes them look bigger. I also found out a lot more.

Sloths have a face that looks like they are smiling, just like dolphins do, and that can create an impression that they’re okay when they’re not. Their strategy for dealing with stress and fear is to stay still and hidden which works in a forest but not in a municipal building in Canada where they’re stuck on a stand. Apparently, even getting close to or touching a sloth can cause them a lot of stress. It seemed to me like sloths were exactly the kind of animal that shouldn’t ever be used in a mobile zoo.

I had heard someone mention that sloths sleep 20 hours a day but that’s only in captivity when they have nothing to do. They actually sleep 8-12 hours in the wild and can be very active when they’re awake. Sure, they move slowly, and that’s an adaptation to avoid being noticed by predators, but they engage in a range of natural movements and behaviours every day. The sloths I saw couldn’t do much of anything.

I left the mobile zoo eager to get away from the depressing sights and sounds. I also left with the memories of each animal etched in my mind, the sloths in particular. These animals deserve so much better than to be used as entertainment and commodity. I left wanting to find a way to restore even a semblance of their natural way of life, and all the meaning, purpose and well-being that entails for them.

 Click Here to Learn 9 Ways to Help Sloths