Wildlife rescue and sanctuary manager, Sam Trull, knows only too well, how fragile some animals are in the wild. She works long shifts, and generally pulling out all the stops to help sick and injured animals. Her efforts to help a pregnant sloth that fell from a tree reached a new levels of commitment! Earlier this month, she witnessed what is believed to be the world’s first birth of a sloth by Caesarean section.
It all began on last fall, when a hotel worker telephoned Kids Saving the Rainforest (KSTR), a wildlife center in Manuel Antonio on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. He said that he found an injured sloth that had fallen from a tree. Trull , originally a primatologist before founding the Sloth Institute Costa Rica, went to see the sloth.
The animal was a female brown-throated sloth (Bradypus variegatus), the most common of the three-toed sloths. These cat-sized animals have a low-energy diet of leaves, twigs and fruit. They move very slowly and sleep for long periods. Researchers have found that in the wild they average nine to 10 hours per day.
Trull inspected the sloth, she found she was having seizures and having difficulty moving her limbs.
“Seizures are normally indicative of some kind of brain injury and we knew she had fallen out of a tree,” says Trull. “In the case of a skull fracture, we usually euthanize pretty much right away, but I checked her skull and it wasn’t fractured. It was then I realized she was pregnant.”
Having previously successfully treated monkeys suffering seizures, Trull gave the sloth steroids over three days, when she began to show signs of labor, including expressing milk from her mammary glands and having contractions.
“I could feel the baby kicking, which was cool,” says Trull. “At least I knew it was still alive.”
That night Trull stayed up timing the erratic contractions. The following day, worried by the lack of any signs of imminent birth, she decided to take her to see a vet in the nearby coastal town of Herradura.
The vet carried out an examination as well as a CT scan and an X-ray, which confirmed the baby was alive but in a breech position. Worse, the injured mother had a full bladder, which meant the baby was stuck like that. Sloths empty their bowels and bladders only about once a week, and can hold up to 30% of their own body weight in feces and urine. So the baby was unlikely to be able to turn around for a normal, head-first birth.
“We determined it was an emergency, and that the only chance we had to save either or both of them was to do a C-section,” says Trull.
Sloth expert Bryson Voirin of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, near Munich, Germany, says he has never heard of a sloth being born by Caesarean section.
The operation was performed and after consulting a senior colleague by phone, the vet gave the sloth a general anesthetic and called in two assistants to help. First the vet drained the swollen bladder, then cut into the womb. After around 30 minutes, the baby’s head emerged.
The following day, the mother began eating and looking a bit better. But she still had neurological symptoms, and could not feed or properly take care of her offspring. The baby had a heart murmur and possible lung problems, and was not feeding properly. It sadly passed away a week after its birth. The mother seemed to be improving but then had a stroke. She died a day after the baby.
“It was devastating but not entirely surprising,” says Trull. “Ultimately it’s not the quantity of life that counts but the quality. I’m glad he had a week, and that he had some snuggles with his mom. I was at least able to unite mother and baby before they died, so it might not have been a very long life but at least it was a life.”
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