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Sloths take a v-e-r-r-r-r-r-y slow bow at the ‘Survival of the Slowest’ traveling show

Sloths are the stars of the Survival of the Slowest exhibit at the Swaner Nature Preserve in Park City

Children watch a female sloth named Lulu in the “Survival of the Slowest” exhibit at the Swaner Preserve in Park City on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.
Children watch a female sloth named Lulu in the “Survival of the Slowest” exhibit at the Swaner Nature Preserve in Park City on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

A traveling exhibit called “Survival of the Slowest” is now showing at the Swaner Nature Preserve at Kimball Junction — a collection of snakes, lizards, frogs, iguanas, scorpions, geckos, hedgehogs, turtles and tortoises that all have one thing in common: they move slow. They take their time. They make the line at the DMV look fast. The last two minutes of an NFL game? Lightning by comparison.

But as slow as they go, they are merely a warm-up act to the real stars of the slow show: 3-year-old Lulu and 1-year-old Sash.

The sloths.

No animal on Earth takes its time like a sloth. If every mammal were lined up at a starting line, the sloth would finish last.

How slow are they? It takes them a minute to travel 9 feet. Their average speed is 0.15 mph. To cross State Street, which is 130 feet wide, it would take 1412 minutes, but that’s if they kept moving, and they never keep moving. They travel an average of just 41 yards a day, a few inches at a time. There are glaciers that move faster.

Everything they do is slow. They sleep slow, up to 15 hours a day. They eat slow. It takes them 50 days to digest a meal, which is made up entirely of leaves. And that’s convenient because they live next to their food source in trees, where their claws allow them to hang effortlessly on branches, often upside down. Sloths give new meaning to hang time.

Only two things get them down out of the trees. Pooping is one, something they do only once every two to three weeks because of their super slow metabolism. The other is to find a mate. Mating is the one thing sloths do fast, relatively speaking, so they can quickly get back to not doing much in the tree.

All this abject slowness has served them well over the years, notes Hunter Klingensmith, the exhibit manager for Swaner. That’s the point of the slow zoo, she explains: the race doesn’t always go to the fastest and strongest.

“It’s counterintuitive, why would being slow be helpful? It goes against everything we think survival of the fittest means,” she says. “But there are many animals that use slowness as a strategy for survival.”

A sloth’s greatest strength is blending in, in not being noticed. It moves so slow that a form of algae grows on its fur, giving it a natural camouflage that makes it look like part of the tree it’s hanging in.

This proves very frustrating for predators. Klingensmith points out that the animal that poses the greatest danger to sloths (other than humans, who keep hacking away at the rainforests) is the harpy eagle, a bird of prey endemic to South and Central America where sloths come from.

The harpy eagle is a magnificent creature with strength and swiftness, not to mention terrific eyesight. It is at the very top of the food chain, soaring above the rainforest canopy, looking for food to swoop down on. But it has a hard time hunting sloths, because sloths move about as much as a Navy SEAL on recon.

The result: The harpy eagle is on the endangered species list. The sloth is not.

Although a sloth’s goal in life is to stay out of the spotlight, interest in sloths by human beings has mushroomed. Social media and pop culture have embraced the slowest creature on Earth. Sloths have made appearances in movies like “Ice Age,” “The Croods” and, most memorably, in the DMV scene in “Zootopia.” One website recently proclaimed the sloth the internet’s new favorite animal, supplanting the unicorn. There’s a YouTube clip of actress Kristen Bell, a huge sloth lover, being surprised on her birthday with a sloth that has been viewed 30 million times.

Suddenly, after 64 million years, the animal that doesn’t go anywhere is everywhere They’re on calendars, T-shirts, pajamas, coffee mugs, handbags, socks, Halloween costumes. Little kids, and big kids, are hoping for sloth stuffed animals for Christmas.

As word spreads that sloths are in town, sloth lovers are showing up in ever-increasing numbers, making “Survival of the Slowest” one of the most popular exhibits the Swaner Preserve has put on.

If you’re interested in meeting Lulu and Sash — or any of their slow peers — they hold court from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday (the exhibit is closed Monday and Tuesday). They arrived the first of October and will be at Swaner through Jan. 9, 2022. Until then, they aren’t going anywhere.