Smithsonian’s National Zoo recently welcomed a female two-toed sloth named Athena to its small mammal house, where she is sharing her new residence with a gaggle of golden lion tamarins and an aracari, a type of tropical bird. But staff members are hoping that one neighbor in particular will catch Athena’s eye: Vlad, a male two-toed sloth and potential suitor.
As Dana Hedgpeth reports for the Washington Post, Athena made her debut at the Washington, D.C. zoo in late December, after moving from the Ellen Trout Zoo in Texas. She was transported “as the result of a breeding recommendation,” the National Zoo explains. Unlike some of the zoo’s other breeding programs, which seek to propagate threatened and endangered animals, the matchmaking effort between Athena and Vlad focuses on a species that the International Union for Conservation of Nature considers to be of “least concern.” But a sloth has not been born at the zoo since 1984, and staff are eager for some babies.
Athena’s arrival comes nearly two years after the death of another female two-toed sloth, Ms. Chips, who lived most of her 46 years at the small mammal house. Romance does not seem to have ever blossomed between Ms. Chips and Vlad, though funny business may have been happening clandestinely.
“It’s very possible there was mating, but it happened at dusk or dawn when sloths tend to be most active,” Kara Ingraham, an animal keeper at the zoo, tells Natalie Delgadillo of DCist. “We never witnessed any breeding, and they never had any reproductive success.”
Staff hope that Athena and Vlad will prove to be a more fruitful pairing—but in true sloth fashion, their relationship, if it works out, will develop slowly. At just one and a half years old, Athena is much younger than Vlad, who is 34. She will not reach sexual maturity until she is three years of age, giving zoo experts plenty of time to introduce the animals.
The gradual process is already underway. First, keepers swapped the blankets that Athena and Vlad like to cuddle, allowing them to get used to one another’s scents. The sloths first met face-to-face through mesh, so they could see one another without having to share the same space. “If Athena and Vlad seem interested in each other and indicate that they would like to spend time together,” the zoo says, “they will be on exhibit together.”
Sparks haven’t flown yet; Ingraham tells Delgadillo that Athena and Vlad seem to be largely indifferent to one another, though that could change once Athena reaches breeding age. In their native habitats of Central and South America, two-toed sloths—which belong to a different taxonomic family than three-toed sloths—are quiet and solitary creatures. But females make it very clear when they are ready to mate, letting out a high-pitched scream to alert interested males. Babies are born after a six-month gestation period, and will cling to their mothers’ belly for the first five weeks of life.
Only time will tell whether Athena and Vlad make for the perfect couple. For now, the young female is still acclimating to her new home, getting to know the golden lion tamarins that share her exhibit. These small monkeys happen to be very fond of sloths, and are in the habit of snuggling up with Vlad for naps.
Athena has also proven to be quite energetic and curious, as far as sloths go. Ingraham tells Delgadillo that Athena eats out of her keepers’ hand and even tried to steal snacks from the tamarins’ food enclosure.
“She still doesn’t move very fast,” Ingraham says, “but she’s not moving in slow motion either.”