Austin Sloth Makes the Most of Life in Texas
By Alex Dropkin
For Reporting Texas and the Austin American-Statesman
Every morning, Sophia eats a handful of grapes and perks up. She stretches her legs and, on good days, takes a lap or two around the artificial forest in her enclosure.
Sophia is a two-toed sloth, and the grapes—met with a wet, black nose and long tongue—amount to dessert. Her staples are sweet potatoes, vegetables and monkey chow.
The two-toed sloth is endemic to Central and South America. Sophia has lived at ZooKeeper Exotic Pets in North Austin for 12 years, since being rescued from an owner who had lost interest in her. The sloth has become both a public attraction and an educational tool of sorts, serving as a reminder of the consequences of Texas’ lax—some say absent—regulation of the exotic pet trade.
Texas is one of 21 states with no restriction on private ownership of exotic animals, according to Born Free USA, a national animal advocacy organization. The Texas Department of State Health Services oversees statutes on the definition and handling of “dangerous” animals, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department manages non-native species in relation to their impact on native plants and animals, but the onus of regulation is left up to cities and counties.
“That just shows that in Texas, it’s considered not important enough for it to even be handled by the state,” said Lynn Cuny, founder and president of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation in Kendalia, “and that’s a real tragedy.”
Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation receives a dozen or more calls a year to rescue primates, parrots, non-native reptiles and larger animals from overwhelmed owners. Texas is home to more exotic animals than any other state, according to the Humane Society.
“People love the whole idea of having [an animal] in their midst who is novel, who is very unique and who is going to make them look like they’re special,” Cuny said. “It’s a very kind of sick relationship.”
Sophia is a star inside the Zookeeper store, at the corner of Burnet Road and U.S. 183. It sells exotic birds, snakes, turtles, insects, mammals and other unusual critters. Owner Daniel Keeper said he gets at least one customer asking to buy the sloth every day. But Sophia isn’t for sale.
“We try to dissuade people from wanting to keep them,” Keeper said. “This one just happened to be here, so we made the best of the situation, but we tell people that they don’t make good pets. Because they really don’t.”
In the wild, two-toed sloths have a home range of around 1.2 to 6.5 hectares (3 to 16 acres). They sleep as many as 18 hours a day and can climb an estimated 1.8 to 2.4 meters a minute.
Sophia can’t really be held, and caring for a wild animal her size—two-toed sloths can weigh up to 20 pounds—is a commitment of time and money. She also needs a lot of room. Keeper is planning on expanding his store, in part to give her a bigger, more natural space.
“Whether it’s a big dog or a big anything, with size comes more food, more space, more poop, more maintenance,” Keeper said. “Everything is amplified with bigger animals.”
Keeper acknowledges the “fine line” between having the sloth on display and encouraging customers to want one. But through educational programs, he hopes to curb irresponsible ownership. Zookeeper has hosted classes from local public schools, the Texas School for the Blind, and the School for the Deaf.
“We have seen trends in this business away from a lot of the bigger [animals], and I like to think that we may have had something to do with that,” he said, noting that green iguanas and big snakes are not as popular as they once were among pet owners.
Keeper said he is continually rescuing and rehabilitating animals from incapable or unsuitable pet owners.
“It’s part of what goes with [the industry], because sometimes people do make bad decisions,” Keeper said. “We try to do the finger wagging before people buy stuff to try to head that off.”
Sophia’s previous owner legally imported her, but didn’t have the resources or desire to care for her. Keeper said when he acquired her, she was physically healthy but lived in a small cage and “just didn’t seem to be very happy.”
“We basically got a phone call one day. It was a UT student, and it had been given to her by her father as a gift,” Keeper said, “She had tired of it and didn’t want it—I don’t think she had it very long—and so we told her that we’d take care of it for the rest of its life.”
Two-toed sloths can live for more than 30 years in captivity, and though Keeper isn’t sure how old Sophia is, she was already a big animal when he got her.
Brad Wendt, a supervisor wildlife inspector with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services in Houston, said that despite Texas’ lax laws, Houston is not a major port of entry for exotic species compared with Miami, Los Angeles and New York. Though he wasn’t sure how a sloth made it to Central Texas, he said he assumed it was flown in as a carry-on rather than shipped as cargo.
However Sophia made it to Austin, she wasn’t the first or the last. Keeper said he gets occasional calls from other sloth owners looking to breed their pet or find it a little companionship. He hasn’t taken anyone up on the offer.
Most of the time, it can be easy to overlook Sophia inside the large tub she often shares with a big, green iguana. The sloth is about the size of a toddler—covered in brown fur—with spindly pairs of arms and legs, but she fits almost perfectly inside the enclosure.
A sign on the outside of her terrarium says, “If you don’t see the sloth, she’s in the blue bin.” Two-toed sloths are nocturnal, and often the only sign of her is two sets of big brown claws hanging off either side of her hideout. When she does leave the tub, to eat or get a drink or stretch, she is quite the sight.
“When she comes out and starts cruising around, it’s pretty fast,” Keeper said. “Faster than you’d think.”