Ever heard of a sloth wrangler? That’s what caretakers of these cuddly, laid-back rainforest dwellers are called at the Sloth Sanctuary in Costa Rica. They look after the more than 75 sloths that live on the premises, which were once injured or orphaned before being rescued and taken to the center for rehabilitation.

Just outside Cahuita on Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast, this private 120-acre wildlife sanctuary is devoted to the protection of sloths through their observation, study and care. The center — Aviarios del Caribe — received its first resident in 1992 and has since successfully hand-reared more than 100 sloths, returning some of them to their forest canopy home, though orphans obtained as small babies are not able to learn the skills to live in the wild on their own.

The Sloth Sanctuary actually began as a boutique hotel built in 1991. The owners, Luis and Judy, offered guests tours of their rainforest home, showcasing several hundred of the more than 850 bird species found in Costa Rica. A big surprise happened a year later, however, that would take their dream in a wholly new direction: three neighbor girls showed up with an orphaned three-fingered sloth. She was christened ‘Buttercup,’ and her caretakers had to learn everything they could about sloths. Later, another orphaned sloth arrived, and then another – and soon, the hotel keepers-turned-sloth keepers were regarded as resident experts on these amiable, charming creatures. Buttercup still lives on site, and thousands of visitors have had their photos taken with her.

Baby Sloth

“Jewel” is an orphaned baby sloth with a broken arm — she’s wearing a cast.

In addition to the rescue center as a site for study, Aviarios del Caribe also houses the Sloth Learning Center, completed in 2004 as an educational project to teach the region’s children – and guests – the importance of preserving Costa Rica’s ecosystems and habitat for the sloth and other species. Visitors view a short video about the sloth, then meet some of the resident adults… and babies! A tour guide introduces the tiny orphans and tells the story of how each came to the Sloth Sanctuary, sharing details about their different personalities and characteristics.

The sanctuary tour includes a 1-hour canoe ride through the wildlife reserve that surrounds the center. The bayous of the Estrella River Delta are impressive for the many wildlife species they nurture, including wild sloths, which visitors may spot in the trees. A variety of large and small mammals, reptiles, poison-dart frogs and butterflies are at home in the lowland tropical forest, as well as more than 310 recorded species of birds. Lucky guests might spy a bright-billed toucan among them.

A visit to the Sloth Sanctuary is included as part of NHA’s new Costa Rica Voluntourism opportunity, available as an extension following Costa Rica tours. The 4-day, 3-night adventure offers a chance to benefit Costa Rica’s indigenous people who live in the Talamanca Reserve on the southern Caribbean coast. Other voluntourism options are available in Patagonia, Peru, Ecuador and Kenya in conjunction with NHA’s trips to those destinations. Take a look at all voluntourism adventures on NHA’s website  or ask an Adventure Specialist for details.

And in the meantime, enjoy some video footage of sloths in action…albeit rather s-l-o-w action: