Nature | A Sloth Named Velcro
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Watch Wednesday, January 25, 2017 at 8pm on WMHT-TV​

In 2000, Ana Salceda, a young Spanish print and television journalist, moved from her native Spain to explore the wilds of Panama, but couldn’t have predicted the turn her life would take when she became the caregiver for a tiny orphaned baby sloth, which she named Velcro. For nearly two years, the pair was inseparable, until the day came for Velcro to be reintroduced back to the wild. But their time together jumpstarted Ana’s introduction into and involvement with the larger conservation story of sloths, as well as with their caretakers and supporters.

A Sloth Named Velcro tells the story of Salceda’s return to Central and South America to see how much has changed since Velcro came into her life and to document current sloth conservation efforts.

Sloths, once largely ignored, have become a hot topic of scientific researchers. New studies show that they’re not so sloth-like after all. Ana teams up with Bryson Voirin and his colleagues from the Max Planck Institute as they carry out a landmark study into the sleep habits of sloths. Voirin has discovered that despite their reputation, sloths in fact sleep only about as much as humans do and are much more active in the wild than they are in captivity. Other studies have shown sloths are not as solitary as we thought, that they have social structures, and that males even keep small harems of females. New research into the gait of sloths has revealed another surprise. X-ray images and photographic analysis show that sloths actually move just like primates, only upside-down.

Sloth sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers are springing up throughout Central and South America as development displaces these gentle creatures. Ana spends time with founder Encar Garcia at the Jaguar Rescue Center in Costa Rica where orphaned and injured animals – including sloths – are cared for and returned to the wild. In Colombia, Ana meets Tinka Plese, whose approach to rehabilitation includes aromatherapy and massage as part of a program designed to instill a feeling of independence to animals before their reintroduction. Here, Ana also discovers a black market where baby sloths are sold to unsuspecting tourists. And in Panama we meet a loosely organized group of concerned citizens who make up a “sloth patrol” of individuals who rescue sloths crossing dangerous roads in search of a new home.

On the island of Escudo de Veraguas off the coast of Panama, Ana and sloth researcher Bryson Voirin slog through mangrove swamps to come face-to-face with a newly-identified sloth species, dubbed pygmy sloths, that has evolved in isolation for almost 9,000 years.

Shot on location and featuring a unique mix of home movies, natural history and new science, the journey that Ana began with Velcro becomes the story of a growing network of dedicated individuals working hard to learn more about these charming creatures in order to protect them.