MADEIRA BEACH — The first ads showed up sometime before Thanksgiving on Facebook and Instagram. Within 45 minutes, tickets had sold out.
Tampa Bay’s latest fad: Sloth yoga.
Alligator Attraction at John’s Pass is the first tourist destination in Florida to let people stretch, twist and pose alongside two-toed sloths. The organization once made national headlines for offering $175 alligator pool parties and currently allows guests the opportunity to hold tarantulas and kiss gators. Like the pool parties, their new animal event has proven popular — and prone to critique.
Sloth encounters are becoming more prevalent in Tampa Bay tourism. The three organizations behind these activities say wildlife contact helps visitors learn about conservation. But there’s no clear link that shows the experiences with wild animals in captivity lead to restoration in the wild.
Animal welfare experts say pay-to-play businesses perpetuate the idea that exotic animals are commodities. These kinds of activities often put animals into stressful situations.
“The problem is, you look at the sloth and it looks like it’s smiling,” said Anthony Eliseuson, senior staff attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “It’s just their natural face structure, and it’s something that looks the same even when they’re in pain or suffering.”
Within a few days of the sloth yoga announcement, a wait list grew to 50 people. General manager Sonny Flynn added more classes through March. Those sold out too.
Their two rescue sloths, Sid and Sylvia, came from a primate facility in Michigan. For each class, Flynn said, one sloth will get a ride to Beachfront Fitness in North Redington Beach via baby carrier. The animal will hang from a bar in the corner while an instructor guides an hour of intermediate yoga, priced at $40. At the end, yogis can feed Sid or Sylvia pieces of Romaine lettuce, pet them and take “slothies.”
The sloth spike dates back years, lining up with Kristen Bell’s appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2012. A clip of the actress sobbing and hugging a sloth for her 31st birthday went viral.
Sloth characters were also fan favorites in films like Ice Age (2002) and Zootopia (2016). And countless viral videos star sloths, whether they’re swimming, wearing pajamas or trying to cross the road.
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Sloth yoga is not the first event to capitalize on sloth mania in Tampa Bay. ZooTampa has done annual holiday photo shoots with their sloths for $200 since since 2018, and their star sloth Lorenzo visits schools and events. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay this summer introduced a behind-the-scenes Animal Connections tour that lets guests touch sloths for $59.99, on top of other sloth appearances during press events.
All three organizations say they keep animal safety in mind, but animal experts say encounters aren’t worth it. Many say human contact puts sloths — and other wild animals — in peril.
As sloth popularity grew, so did questionable animal treatment, said Darryl Heard, an associate professor and chief of the division of zoological medicine at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine.
"We've seen a number of sick and ill sloths as part of the pet trade,” Heard said. “That's a recent phenomenon.”
Since Bell’s first Ellen appearance, privately obtained sloths imported from outside the U.S. have surged, Heard said. More sloths are kept as pets, featured in petting zoos or sold on black markets than before.
But sloths don’t do well in captivity, Heard said. He’s seen many cases where young sloths are taken from their mother too early and where they’re not fed the right foods.
Flynn said sloth yoga classes are limited to ten participants per session and each sloth will only participate in one class per month. Holding or hugging won’t be allowed.
“We don’t want to stress the animals,” Flynn said.
Melinda Mendolusky, an animal care manager at ZooTampa, said handlers are mindful of animal body language and strive to make animals comfortable every day. Guests are not permitted to touch or hold sloths during holiday photo shoots.
"The animals have their own personalities, and sometimes they choose not to participate,” she said. "As an animal care professional, we always make sure to take care of animal behavior and animal welfare. We really pay attention to the animal’s body language and what it is we feel they’re trying to tell us.”
In response to questions about the ethics of animal encounters, Busch Gardens cited its accreditations and said this in a statement: “The well-being and care of animals is our top priority. All interaction programs at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay are developed by experts to be safe and enriching, and to create experiences that educate and inspire our guests.”
Still, Rebecca Cliffe, a Costa Rica-based zoologist who founded the Sloth Conservation Foundation three years ago, says that sloths internalize stress.
"We see sloths in the worst, most stressful situations, and because they aren’t fighting back, people think they’re okay,” Cliffe said in a call from Costa Rica.
One study Cliffe cited showed that sloths experienced abnormal blood pressure reactions as humans approached.
Not all organizations that feature wild animals are alike, Heard said. Encounters can be done appropriately. All three Tampa Bay organizations meet requirements set by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and United States Department of Agriculture. But only ZooTampa and Busch Gardens satisfied more rigorous criteria in order to receive accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Even accreditation doesn’t mean animals won’t be hurt. And as more endangered species like tiger cubs are bred in captivity or stolen to fuel animal experiences and photo ops, experts advise caution.
"[Sloth yoga] is not horrendous, but it’s still on a bad scale,” Cliffe said. "A bigger problem is normalizing that interaction with a wild animal.”
READ MORE: Is cuddling tiger cubs conservation? Experts warn it leads to too many tigers languishing in cages
Two years ago, Instagram started to flag hashtags related to wildlife encounters, including #SlothSelfie. Users who tried to post photos of exotic animal interactions started to see warning messages about animal exploitation.
“Be wary when paying for photo opportunities with exotic animals, as these photos and videos may put endangered animals at risk," a message in Instagram’s Help Center advised.
The Costa Rican government also has been outspoken, rolling out the #stopanimalselfies campaign last month. The campaign encourages tourists to snap photos from a respectful distance when observing animals in the wild or in zoos.
After inquiries from a Tampa Bay Times reporter, Cliffe’s organization posted about Alligator Attraction’s sloth yoga on Facebook.
“Sloths are not yoga props,” the post read in part. “This is the blatant exploitation of a wild animal for profit.”
The Madeira Beach company shot back defending its rescue mission and nonprofit work. These sloths, Flynn said, were born in captivity, not taken from their homes.
The Sloth Conservation Foundation urged Alligator Attraction to reconsider.
“You do NOT need to use your sloths in this way to raise funds for your work,” it wrote. “People will happily pay to see a sloth in an ethical manner (i.e. observing the sloth in its enclosure) — it is being done correctly at hundreds of facilities. Why are you different?”
Alligator Attraction has removed its own Facebook and Instagram posts advertising sloth yoga.
“The activists have reached out to us and called us all kinds of names,” Flynn said. “They weren’t willing to listen to what we have to say.”
Sloth yoga classes kick off Sunday.