If Only We Could Be More Like the Sloth...

...I recently toured Peru. I ventured to ancient Cuzco and the exotic Inca fortress at Machu Picchu. I spent days on the Amazon visiting Indian villages and hiking through the "selva." My tour ended in the capital of Lima.

It is always refreshing to escape the day to day life of the United States with its almost claustrophobic feelings brought about by the media's incessant accounts of turmoil and strife. Actually, for almost three weeks I heard nothing of skirmishes in Afghanistan, homicidal Palestinian bombers in Israel, Israeli tanks in Palestine, death and war in Iraq, lingering strife in Africa, terrorism threats for those traveling the skies. No messages of conflict between congressional Democrats and a Republican president reached my ears.

Was I in Nirvana? In Machu Picchu and in the jungle (called the "selva,") I began to feel that perhaps I was, but then I did come back to reality in Lima. The city was engulfed in protests and strikes. Traffic was brutal. A stop sign or red light only meant that one would yield to bigger cars or trucks. A go sign or green light meant precisely the same thing. Pollution was horrific. Black soot flowed from each motorized vehicle. Horns blasted every conceivable kind of loud sound. At each corner, beggars approached car windows, as did persons selling everything from national flags and household cleaners, to candy and chewing gum. Squeegee blades were on stopped windows almost immediately. The beach suburb of Miraflores looked almost like a southern European resort, but the thought of the temporary shacks aside surrounding mountains, made feelings of luxury or comfort rather unpleasant. Each neighborhood and suburb also found traffic flowing toward a central plaza--The Plaza de Armes--which celebrated Peru's role in wars of the 1870s with neighbors Ecuador, Chile, and Bolivia. A heavenly Nirvana it was not. But then, just maybe a heavenly Nirvana was near at hand.

Human society, and especially Western society, embraces an ethic of progress. The ethic is reflected in a biblical admonition that mankind should go forth and subdue the land for its enrichment. Christian and Muslim principles (indeed misinterpreted but certainly acted upon) alike suggest that the faithful should go and convert the heathen, and maybe trample them (even to death) if they resist the "true word." Western individualism is often played out as a win-lose game of social Darwinism. Militarism is a natural concomitant of human group value structures. Yet faiths envision a quite different Nirvana, an almost non-materialistic "pot of gold," at the end of the rainbow we call life. In contrast with the images of CNN and Fox News and the street scenes of Lima, the heaven we wish to seek is one of satisfaction, relaxation, non-competition, non-acquisition but still self sufficiency, self pleasures of perhaps undefined natures (but then of very well defined nature for suicide bombers, ala virgins at one's feet), and above all, most of all, always always PEACE. That ultimate desire of Peace is also the central virtue espoused in diplomatic circles and in foreign policy statements of all nations. That ultimate desire of Peace is the rationale for international conferences, and it is the rationale for the creation of bi-lateral and multi-lateral alliances, and of course, for the creation of the United Nations.

In the selva I sensed that this Nirvana was alive and well on our own earth NOW. The naturalist guide for our Amazon boat tours, urged us to be quiet, but to get our cameras out. He was sure he had spotted among the leaves of a Kapok tree, a three-toed sloth. Indeed he had, and we sat in stunned silence as he directed our eyes to an upper branches to what appeared to be a lump on the truck of the tree. After we took our pictures and moved onward in our journey, the guide told us about this most heavenly of all god's creatures.

As the story unfolded, I indeed was convinced that the key to our human survival, the key to peace on earth could be displayed in the lifestyle of this much maligned creature.

The sloth is not a taker. The mammal, which typically grows to be about 8 pounds and as much as two feet in body length, does not engage in win-lose or parasitic games. As the sloth survives, it harms no other living creature. He eats only the leaves of very specific trees, deriving both nutritional substance and its water needs from the foliage. Yet the sloth gives back to the trees and to other creatures as well. He exists in a symbiotic and synergistic relationship with all others in the environment of the few trees that he occupies.

The sloth has a hairy body, and the hair becomes a breeding ground for the algae of the region. The algae in turn give the body of the sloth a greenish coloring that affords him a camouflaged hiding from predators. While the sloth spends most of its time hanging in sleep in mid level branches of its trees, it does seek energy from the sun by rising to higher limbs. The sunshine, in turn, gives valuable heat to the algae as well, helping sustain its growth.

The long stringing hair of the sloth is also the residential home of a special sloth moth. With its limited dietary needs (the sloth craves only what it needs, unlike human beings, not what it wants), the sloth needs to engage in the animal process of discarding wastes only once a week. In the process of doing so, he descends the tree, very slowly, digs a hole, deposits the waste and in an environmentally correct nice manner covers up the hole when he is done. As the waste is being deposited, the sloth moth also deposits eggs in the fecal material. The burial of the waste then protects the eggs. As the eggs are nurtured to produce a new generation of moths, the soils about the waste have been enriched by it, and so are able to better feed the tree that gives the sloth its home and its very limited food supply.

The sloth is very vulnerable to the animals which prey upon it, notable the harpy eagle and the jaguar. The sloth has sharp claws which can be used in defense. They are never used as offensive weapons. The animal’s greatest protection comes from its ability to hide. It seeks middle level branches which are out of reach of the jaguar and also below a range of convenience for flight by the harpy eagle. The acts of stealth are aided by the camouflage coloring and also by the sloth's ability to remain still for hours and hours at a time. The animal sleeps in an upside down position hanging from limbs of the tree for as many as 20 hours every day.

The sloth is in its most dangerous position when it descends the tree to do its weekly duty. The sloth does not have a muscular capacity to make any kind of escape when it is on the ground. It is the slowest of all mammals. Its legs cannot move it; instead it pulls itself along the ground at a rate of a few feet per hour. On the other hand, the long arms of the sloth enable the animal to swim with great ability, especially with a speed that can take the sloth away from pursuing jaguars. Naturally in its jungle environment it gravitates to trees that are near watered areas.

The natural strengths (rather the lack thereof--it has the least muscle mass of any mammal) of the sloth incline it toward a complete aversion to any conflict within its own population. It has very few and very simple needs and no wants. The sloth will inhabit only a few trees during its lifetime. It will bond with these trees and mark them with its individual smells. The others of the species will respect its trees, and in turn it is not at all motivated to seek out trees belonging to others of its kind. There are reports that during mating "season" (a stretch of the word), two male two toed sloths may fight for a female's affection, however, the three toed variety are rarely so inclined. The sloths are solitary creatures that spend almost their entire lifetimes alone in the midst of their individual trees. The concept of group based battles is totally out of the realm of contemplation for these animals.

Males and females of other species (ergo, Homo sapiens) do have their episodes of group battles, but again this cannot be the case with the sloths. With this species, male female relationships have advanced to an extremely wonderful level not found with other animals (hopefully this is not just a chauvinistic male perspective). Male and female sloths meet for only three days a year. It takes the animals three days to engage in the mating act. (From a female perspective the idea of three days of pre-activity should seem to be rather advanced behavior from males). After the three days the male retreats to his tree, dreaming about the moment during his long episodes of sleep. Well, of course, the female is left with a burden, but it is not overwhelming. A period of gestation lasts six months, and most of this time the female is sleeping and just hanging around her tree. After birth, the young sloth clings to the mother for about two months, observing the slow cycle of activity. It is then taken to a tree of its own and released. The female then, like the male, can enjoy four to five months of solitude.

In two Indian villages of the Amazon, our tour group observed that young native girls had pet sloths. The animals clung around their waists, much as babies were tied in cloth around the waists of the older women. The pets were exceedingly loving, and craved to be held. Members of our group took turns holding the sloths, always being careful to avoid contact with the claws. The notion struck this observer that perhaps the sloth could be brought into the culture of Lima and also the United States. The animal could be offered as a surrogate child for young teenagers that otherwise might be having real babies. Perhaps, the teenage girls could carry sloths until they reached an appropriate age when they could more adequate care to real babies. As the sloths may live to be as old as thirty years, they could be passed on from one girl to another in new rites of passage. Not only could we learn from the sloth, but this giving animal could make great contributions to our society in direct ways as well.

In the lexicon of man, the sloth has been much abused. Religions that seek peace have overlooked this species almost unique contribution. Instead, the sloth has been set forth as a model for one of the seven deadly sins--laziness. This is unkind, and unjustified. When we go to sleep we pray for peace. We envision a heaven that is much like the peaceful world of the sloth. Lazy? What do we think of all day--ways to take advantage of others and then ways to avoid conflict with others? The sloth probably dreams our dreams as well, wakes up, looks around, and sees that indeed, the dreamed-of Nirvana is at hand. So it goes back to sleep. Why not?

The central prophet, the Savior and creative spirit of the prominent religion of the western world offered the words that should elevate the sloth to a position if not of worship itself, at least of emulation, "It is more blessed to give...." World peace could be at hand. If only mankind could be more like the sloth.

by William N. Thompson