MADEIRA BEACH — Animal lovers from New Jersey to Lithuania are outraged at the Tampa Bay area’s latest novelty fitness class: sloth yoga.
After a Times report on concerns about sloth encounters in Tampa Bay, tens of thousands are trying to shut down yoga classes offered by Alligator Attraction in John’s Pass. The campaign also slams Wild Florida Airboats & Gator Park in Central Florida, which has offered sloth yoga in the past.
Alligator Attraction and Wild Florida say their encounters are beneficial because they expose participants to wild animals. But there is no clear link that proves exotic animals in captivity actually benefit endangered animals in the wild. Several animal welfare experts told the Times these pay-to-play businesses harm sloths because animals are often separated from their mothers and put in stressful situations and unnatural environments.
The Sloth Conservation Foundation launched an online petition Dec. 11 called “This Tourist Attraction is Using These Poor Sloths to Make a Buck.” As of 3 p.m. Wednesday, the petition had over 26,000 supporters.
Signatures are pouring in from across the United States as well as dozens of other countries, including Germany, Malaysia, Ukraine and Argentina.
“The number of sloths kept as private pets, sold on the black market, or kept in zoos is on the rise. Alligator Attraction and Wild Florida are feeding this phenomenon, instead of focusing on keeping wildlife safe and the public educated," reads the description. "Sign the petition and demand that they hold NO MORE sloth yoga events!”
Wild Florida offered sloth yoga in July. The $40 tickets to the first class sold out in just one day.
Then in November, John’s Pass-based tourist destination Alligator Attraction started advertising hourlong sloth yoga classes. The first round of $40 tickets sold out in 45 minutes. Additional classes were scheduled through March 2020, and those tickets sold out, too.
Wild Florida and Alligator Attraction both meet basic requirements set by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and United States Department of Agriculture. Neither satisfied more rigorous criteria in order to receive accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Animal welfare experts say experiences like this can put sloths in peril. Studies show interaction with people causes extreme stress for sloths. One found that sloths experience abnormal blood pressure reactions as humans approached.
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“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.”
Sloth yoga participants are encouraged to take “slothies," an action that worries animal welfare experts.
As the animals became more popular on social media in recent years, more sloths have been kept as pets, featured in petting zoos or sold on black markets than before, said Darryl Heard, an associate professor and chief of the division of zoological medicine at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine.
The Costa Rican government is even getting involved. It launched the #stopanimalselfies campaign in November to discourage people taking selfies with sloths and other wild animals.
“To stop this from happening we must kill the demand, and to kill the demand we need to change what is considered to be an acceptable interaction with a wild animal,” said a Sloth Conservation Foundation Facebook post. “Organizations such as Alligator Attraction are responsible for setting this precedent.”
It’s too early to tell if Sloth Conservation Foundation’s petition will be effective. Rebecca Cliffe, a Costa Rica-based zoologist who founded the organization three years ago, said she has yet to hear back from the organizations.
“I am in the process of drafting them an email, so hopefully we get something back soon," she wrote to the Times. "Otherwise we will attempt to appeal to the morals of the yoga instructor.” (Kelly Kramer, the sloth yoga instructor for Alligator Attraction, did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Times).
Alligator Attraction is aware of the petition, general manager Sonny Flynn wrote in an email to the Times. The tourist destination does “not have any yoga classes planned in the future.”
“The harassment my loving and caring staff has endured over this story is unbelievable and outrageous," Flynn wrote. “I do not particularly care for bullies and have no further comments.”
Wild Florida’s co-founder, Samuel Haught, said he was unaware of the petition. His organization didn’t have plans for future yoga classes but does charge for encounters that include activities that concern animal welfare experts. A $41 sloth encounter allows visitors to take sloth selfies. A $207 VIP sloth experience includes feeding and holding a sloth.
Haught, who could not remember where Wild Florida’s five sloths originally came from, said it was “pretty obvious” that his sloths enjoy the interactions.
“We feel like it’s beneficial to them because otherwise these sloths, they would slowly lose their mind just sitting in a pet-store cage hiding from everybody, and this allows them to have some enrichment,” Haught said.
Cliffe’s organization disputes this, saying sloths are “solitary and predominantly nocturnal creatures — two traits being wholly ignored by sloth yoga.”
“We see sloths in the worst, most stressful situations," Cliffe said in a call from Costa Rica. "And because they aren’t fighting back, people think they’re okay.”