It is the most dangerous game in Panama – one where the hunter always becomes the hunted.” It was to these words of wisdom that I clinked my glass in preparation for my imminent discovery of those gargoyle-like beasts—the type one would only expect to see hanging off of the flying buttresses of Notre Dame de Paris. And the truth is, not even a zoo can sustain them in captivity for long: the most ferocious residents end up scouting their home range from the tree tops of Barro Colorado Island, an isolated land mass renowned for wildlife unscathed by the slash and burn agriculture that is destroying much of Panama’s western forests. It was hearing this that I worried about the feasibility of the chase – I could only hope that what I was wearing was appropriate, since I had neglected to bring my armor and mace. In fact, in a more conservative effort to look the part of the field scientist, I had exchanged my Princeton pipe and tie for a pair of Vasque hiking boots, long socks, and wind pants. And so the chase had begun: I was ready for it (whatever “it” might be) to bring it on jungle style.
But then again, I had no idea what a sloth was, what it does in its free time, nor whether it even speaks any English at all. I was totally boggled and didn’t know what to expect. Would it be impressed with my Spanish accent or would turn its head away in bored passivity? These things I would have to find out with the rest of the sloth hunters.
Now, I wouldn’t say that I was exactly nervous to meet this so called “perezoso,” just worried about making a good first impression on the creature – or preferably a better one than Pizarro had made on the Incas. And saying this, I remembered reading one thing the great theorist Emily Post once penned: when a guest at someone’s house, always present the hostess with a gift. Wonderful! I supposed that this sloth host of mine would be honored to receive an interspecific token of my appreciation. The only problem was that I didn’t know what to bring for the initial meeting. With human beings this is easy: a fresh orchid or a plate of cookies would do anyone well, but a sloth? Could it even properly digest these carbohydrate-filled delights? These things kept me up at night.
Reading a little bit more about sloth gastronomy, I found that neither cookies nor cakes would be an appropriate choice. Both the two and three-toed species are classified as arboreal ruminants with physiology converging with that of other terrestrial ruminants, such as cows. But what was interesting to me was that, despite the large proportions of vine and tree species that sloths do consume, they only defecate once every six to eight days (Bailey et al., unpublished data). Now, for those of you who also consume up thirty-one different species of tree and five species of vine, this might come as a surprisingly bloated revelation. In fact, I would imagine it would even be downright uncomfortable – even for the most daring of vegetarians – to have to sport style in the tropics with swollen intestines. So, after much consideration, I put the dusty Cabernet Sauvignon back under the cellar stairs and opted for the finer, refined taste of orange-flavored Metamucil that only experienced sages would drink.
And so, armed to the teeth with handfuls of gifts, tracking equipment, and full water bottles, the four sloth hunters (me, Karen Bailey, Angela Hu, and Bryson Voirin, our sloth life-coach) had to track the most dangerous of all animals ever to have existed in all the neo-tropical rainforests. Here we set out humping past crocodile liars, prides of peccaries, trigger nests, and mean-sounding howler monkeys to uncover the most aggressive sloth of all the BCI animal kingdom – one dubbed by Voirin as “Jaws.” This three-toed sloth was rumored to have once moved at an incredible pace of three miles an hour, a speed rivaling that of the Red-Footed Tortoise and a blooming slime mold. And so, it was only with incredible pride that that Voirin bragged of his momentous attack by Jaws one night in early February after accidentally falling asleep on the great sloth’s teeth.
I finally traced Jaw’s signal from canopy tower seven near the fifty-hectare plot deep in BCI’s densely populated woods. At 0700 hours, I had him triangulated to the top of a lone, flowering acacia tree, and it was Bailey who located his sleeping figure in a layer of leaves fifty feet up from where we four were standing, mouths open and drooling.
It was only with profound silence that we watched as our great and dangerous subject dreamed of things that only sloth pimps would dream of: sexy sloth bitches in leopard-print thongs, sloth gang shootings tearing up the lower canopy, wild sloth parties with heavy drinking and sloth grinding. It was truly a terrifying experience. I turned to Bailey and Hu, who nodded in complete understanding of how I felt: “We must not wake Jaws up,” Bailey said. Hu nodded and said, “We must take notes in total silence.” We looked up at Jaws who continued sleeping in the acacia tree, dreaming only those horrible sloth visions far away from our Christian comforts of dancing sugarplums.
And so, here we sat, watching in paralyzed terror as Jaws in the second hour raised his left hand, thankfully only to stroke a chiseled-sloth abdomen. We shook with fear when in hour five and thirty-five minutes he scratched an irritated spot on his elbow: “Whoa, that was close,” Voirin said wiping sweat off his forehead. I almost screamed when in hour seven, Jaws stretched out his forearm in a gesture that could only have originated from the most super-badass of movements. Fortunately Bailey was there to stifle my groan of immense pain. By the end of the eighth hour of observation, we had decided that enough was enough: we could not put our lives at stake for the sake of science like other great scientist that had proceeded us: we had house parties to get back to! At that point, we would have rather been the keeper of some slightly less dangerous animal: a cute, furry jaguar or a cuddly tarantula – anything that would save us from the fear that was Jaws. But then, with a sudden change of heart, we decided that studying sloths might not be so bad after all – in fact, it might even make us better human beings in the long run: and to this, we all agreed. And as a last note to you, dear reader, we pass on our sloth hunting advice: in order to hunt the most dangerous animal in all of the land, that is, the sloth, one must learn to BE the sloth – walk his walk, talk his talk. And with that, I continue my sloth research by turning over to take a nap.