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Think Twice Before Snuggling A Sloth: Experts Warn Against Close Animal Encounters

Despite their cute appearance, sloths and other exotic animals are not meant for close human interaction. Experts and activists warn that interactive zoo experiences can mislead the public about these animals, potentially causing harm to both the animals and people.

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If you've ever felt the urge to snuggle up with a sloth, you're not alone. These slow-moving mammals have become social media stars, enticing animal lovers with their adorable appearances. But behind the trend lies a growing concern among activists and experts.

Nigel Rothfels, a historian specialising in zoos, explains, “The desire for proximity — to touch, to feel the immediate presence of animals — is very old. Perhaps we are hard-wired for it. But the access and demand have increased.”

Recent data from The New York Times reveals a doubling in the number of licensed animal exhibitors since 2019, with sloths becoming popular attractions. However, this surge in demand has led to alarming consequences: increased animal diseases, deaths, and even injuries to humans.

Animal rights activists argue that such encounters can mislead the public into believing wild animals are suitable pets, undermining conservation efforts. Sally Sherwen from Zoos Victoria warns, “Put simply, viewing animals in contact with people has the potential to influence negative beliefs about wildlife and conservation.”

Wild animals, including sloths, aren’t meant to be handled up-close by humans. While sloths look cute from afar, they have powerful jaws that can break bones. Zoologist Sam Trull explains that sloths can become aggressive if taken from their mothers too young and introduced to humans.

Sadly, some businesses exploit animals for tourism, offering photo-ops that seem harmless but are harmful to the animals. Michelle Sinnott from PETA notes that many roadside attractions mistreat animals for profit.

SeaQuest, a hands-on aquarium and zoo in Woodbridge, NJ, has faced criticism for its treatment of animals. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection recently cited SeaQuest for mistreating animals, and records show that over 100 animals, including sloths, died at the facility from 2019 to 2023.

SeaQuest’s co-founder, Vince Covino, defends their practices, saying he doesn’t believe in a “look but don’t touch” approach. However, Covino has no formal training in biology or zoology. 

“There has been a longtime stigma — don’t touch the animals; don’t feed the animals. ‘Shh, they’re sleeping; they don’t want to interact with human beings,’” he said, as reported by The Times. “I just didn’t buy it.”

Reports indicate that SeaQuest trains animals to be active when visitors are present, disrupting their natural routines.

Changes are happening to protect wildlife. The popularity of Netflix’s “Tiger King” led to a law banning the ownership of big cats. Accredited zoos are now focusing more on animal well-being and minimising human-animal interactions. The Humane Society advocates for banning public interactive encounters altogether.

Dan Ashe, president of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, emphasises the importance of allowing animals to have “choice and control” in their interactions, ensuring their happiness and natural behaviours are prioritised.