The Sloth Sanctuary in Costa Rica is “killing animals” through neglect, illness, poor food and housing, according to former employee vets.
The popular tourist destination and so-called rehabilitation center, featured on the likes of David Attenborough’s shows, has been accused of maltreatment of the solitary animals, including holding at least 200 of them in cages measuring two feet wide.
Sharing small enclosures would often lead to fights between the animals and even violent attacks towards their babies. One sloth called Roxie had her scalp ripped off her head.
“These are solitary animals but they are kept in pairs or up to four individuals per cage,” veterinarian Camila Dunner, who worked at the sanctuary from May 2015 to March 2016, told The Dodo. ”The ones that are lucky enough to be on their own are constantly fighting ... with their neighbor. They can bite and pull an extremity through the fence, causing serious injuries."
She worked alongside fellow verterinarian, Gabriel Pastor, who has also revealed his story to The Dodo.
Ms Dunner agreed to share the photos with The Independent and said that they both had received death threats since revealing their story.
She said the majority of sloths are never released to the wild, and the number of animals at the sanctuary are growing.
Ms Dunner accused Judy Avey-Arroyo, who opened the sanctuary in 1992 with her late husband, Luis Arroyo, of turning the rehabilitation center into a “business”, taking healthy animals and putting them into cages.
A sloth can live up to 40 years and therefore can spend decades in a cage.
As reported by The Dodo, the sanctuary has taken in 725 sloths since it opened but has only released 41 rehabilitated animals.
Ms Dunner accused sanctuary workers of illegally cutting down trees and even swimming into rivers to recapture animals who had escaped.
The sloth sanctuary’s own website says several times that the animals cannot be released into the wild, a claim which has been refuted by rehabilitation experts.
The founder, Ms Avey-Arroyo, was filmed in 2013 talking about the center's aim to release the animals back into the wild.
Ms Dunner said baby sloths, often a result of illegal breeding, would be kept together in plastic boxes with older sloths and would be fed every four hours instead of two, meaning the starving babies would suckle on anything they could grab and end up with jaw deformities.
They were also fed cooked and raw vegetables instead of their natural diet of leaves, and many developed malnutrition, urinary tract problems and some even died.
Animals developed abnormal behaviors as they spent their adulthoods without sun, rain or exercise, and would “eat their own bellies”, hide under blankets, refuse to defecate.
A woman who claimed to be a former volunteer accused the sanctuary of neglect in a blog post in 2012. She named a sloth who was suffering and paralyzed called Ubu - a full three years before Ms Dunner and Mr Pastor convinced the founder to put him to sleep.
Other people have vented their frustration on TripAdvisor.
Gerald Richardson, who handles media inquiries for the sanctuary, is the brother of Daryl Richardson, owner of the Texas’ Dallas World Aquarium, which acquired six sloths from the sanctuary, according to an article in New Republic.
He denied any case of maltreatment.
He told The Independent that the claims by the two vets were "malicious" and they wanted to bring about change "too quickly", despite "never having seen a sloth before".
"We had this dilemma of taking in around 150 baby sloths, we didn't have enough leaves to feed them," he said, referring to their food-based diet. "So do we euthanize them? Or do we nurse them back to life and teach them how to forage?"
"To [release them quickly] would wreak havoc on the genetic make-up of that species, especially when they've been abandoned by their mothers."
He added that there are "different trees" around Costa Rica, so the animals might be released in a different area to where they were found and would end up not knowing how to forage food.
"They [Ms Dunner and Mr Pastor were young and excited, but they didn't have the research or the resources to make it," he said.
Ms Dunner responded that she had carried out internships to work with sloths in Ecuador and Mexico before being a vet at the sanctuary.
Ms Dunner and Mr Pastor wrote on Facebook that they have been “discredited and disrespected professionally” as a result but their mission was to expose an institution that was “diametrically opposed to animal welfare”.
“I really hope that minae [Costa Rica government department] and other authorities take into account our complaint about the many irregularities to the law of wildlife in Costa Rica, and take care of it,” Ms Dunner wrote.
A petition to close down the sanctuary has reached more than 2,000 signatures.
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