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Newborn sloth surprises Pet Safari owner

DUNEDIN — For two years, pet store owner Larry Lipke thought his full-grown, two-toed sloth, Blondie, was a male.

Until Sunday, when a store customer pointed out that Blondie was cuddling a tiny baby sloth that wasn't there the day before.

The birth was a complete surprise, said store manager George Talmadge.

"We had no idea she was pregnant," he said.

The baby was born to Blondie and dad, Baby. The store also has a third two-toed sloth, named Scarface. All three came from Guyana in South America, where their native rain forest habitat had been destroyed, Lipke said.

Lipke bought the sloths in 2006 and 2007. Because the animals lack clearly defined external genitalia, it is difficult to determine their gender, he said.

It was unclear Monday how common it is for two-toed sloths to reproduce in captivity. A baby sloth was born at Discovery Cove in Orlando in 2005, the only offspring born to a pair of two-toed sloths that have lived at the park since 2001, said Dave Eden, supervisor of animal training.

A male and female pair of adult sloths at Lowry Park Zoo have not conceived since they were introduced to one another in 2000, said primate caretaker Amy Blackford.

Celebrity zookeeper and animal expert Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, said he thinks "it's not that rare to have a baby sloth."

"However, this is one of the most interesting animals on the planet," he said. "It is tremendous for people to see a sloth. It is one of the slowest-moving mammals in the world. It lives its whole life in four to five trees. The sloth has changed very little over several thousand years which makes it an extremely interesting animal for education and conservation."

And that's exactly why Blondie, Baby and Scarface ended up in Dunedin, Lipke said. He decided about three years ago to start an educational outreach program to teach kids and adults about the environment and the impact of deforestation of South American rain forests. His "Adventure Outpost" exhibit also includes an 18-inch-tall montjack deer and a large South American rodent called an agouti paca.

Lipke said he's unsure of the age of the adult sloths, which spend most of their lives hanging upside down.

"Because they came from the wild, we have no idea," Lipke said, as the tan-colored agouti paca nuzzled his forearm.

On Monday, the baby sloth held tightly to Blondie, becoming invisible at times as it blended into its mom's brown fur. Blondie took apple slices from Lipke's hand, while father Baby took in the scene from atop a cage.

"Blondie and Baby are bonded, which from what I understand is unusual. They're usually solitary animals. But they are always within four feet of each other," Lipke said.

Pet store visitors wandered in and out to catch a glimpse of the tiny sloth, which Lipke estimated at about 10 inches long and 14 ounces in weight.

The new Dunedin resident also received a special welcome Monday morning from Mayor Bob Hackworth.

Hackworth stopped by after he got an e-mail about the birth from Talmadge, who is a former employee of the city's Recreation Department.

"I felt like I was congratulating George like a proud papa," Hackworth said, with a laugh.

Two-toed and three-toed sloths get their names from the number of toes on their forelimbs. Two-toed sloths are generally larger and faster than the three-toed variety.

The sloths eat fruits and vegetables, such as romaine lettuce, zucchini, apples and plums, and a nutritional supplement made from trees that dominate their native forests, Lipke said.

Pet Safari has a Class III permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, spokesman Gary Morse said.

"They just had an inspection and everything was fine," he said.

The pet shop also has a Class B permit from the United States Department of Agriculture, which allows Lipke to buy and sell certain exotic animals.

Lipke said he and his staff will be renovating the Adventure Outpost soon to give mom and baby extra space over the next several weeks. The baby will spend the first five weeks of its life hanging onto its mom's belly and should be fully weaned within nine months, said Eden, of Discovery Cove.

Times staff writer Douglas Clifford contributed to this report. Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

Help feed the animals

It costs about $25 a day to feed the Adventure Outpost animals. Donations are accepted at Pet Safari at 1749 Main St., Dunedin. For information, call (727) 733-6641.

Newborn sloth surprises Pet Safari owner 03/23/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 23, 2009 8:39pm]
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