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Moe the sloth has a girlfriend, and Cincinnati Zoo's hoping next year brings its first baby sloth

They're slooowly getting to know each other
Posted at 7:00 AM, Dec 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-19 07:00:28-05

CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s resident sloth, Moe, has a girlfriend -- and the official word from caretakers is the new couple is taking its relationship “slow.”

While the pair’s initial meeting wasn’t exactly love at first sight, Sarah Dapper, the team lead of the interpretive department, said Moe presented himself as a complete gentleman.

“He was very slow, and he smelled her, then he tried to give her some kisses, which is what two-toed sloths will do in the wild,” she said. “When they greet each other and if they’re both into it, they’ll lick each other’s face. So he tried to lick her face, but she kind of barked at him and huffed.”

Female sloth Lightning arrived from the El Paso Zoo in Texas nearly two months ago. After allowing the new girl in town to get comfortable in her surroundings, caretakers put Lightning and Moe together in a behind-the-scenes enclosure early this month.

The two sloths are expected to be out for public viewing during the last week of December in the newly renovated P&G Discovery Forest.

Cincinnati Zoo sloths Lightning (dark head) and Moe. (Photo provided by Angela Hatke)

The first early encounter for the pair was fairly normal, as sloths choose to be solitary in the wild and socialize only during breeding, said associate curator of interpretive animals Amanda Chambers. She said she is encouraged that Moe and Lightning haven’t exhibited negative behaviors since they were put together 24 hours a day.

While Lightning could choose to sleep on the other side of the enclosure, Chambers said, the female chooses to stay fairly close to Moe.

“She sleeps high up in the habitat and he sleeps low,” she said. “We just don’t have all the information at this point because they’re nocturnal and there could be a lot going on at night. But from what we’ve seen, it’s encouraging.”

The fixup occurred when the sloth Species Survival Plan (SSP) paired the two genetically valuable animals together for breeding, Dapper said. Lightning was born under professional care at the Ellen Trout Zoo in Texas and then moved to the El Paso Zoo, where she lived alone.

“So this is her first real interaction with another sloth other than her mom,” Dapper said. “Moe has only been with one other sloth before and he was orphaned in the wild and then brought into human care. So this is pretty new for both of them.”

Cincinnati Zoo sloth Moe (Photo provided by Angela Hatke)

The last failed attempt to breed Moe a few years ago revealed gender misidentification; Moe, thought to be female, was actually male. His mate, Twix, thought to be male, was actually female. As sex is difficult to identify in sloths, Dapper said, this time Lightning was DNA tested to ensure she was, well, a she.

“So Lightning is actually a whole lot bigger than Moe -- she’s enormous,” Dapper said. “She’s the biggest sloth I’ve ever seen. She weighs around 25 pounds and Moe weighs about 16 to 17 pounds, so she’s really a huge sloth.”

While the pair is getting to know each other behind the scenes, Dapper said the sloths’ habitat is being expanded with additional climbing opportunities, platforms, heat sources and misters and sprinklers to mirror rainforest humidity. She said caretakers also needed to redesign features for a second sloth with a much longer arm length, as the exhibit was initially measured to accommodate Moe.

Besides the difference in size, Dapper said, guests will have no trouble telling the two apart.

“Lightning is a lot darker. Her nose is so tiny compared to his and her head is massive,” she said. “They call her Lightning because she’s really fast, so now we have Slow-Moe and Lightning.”

In terms of breeding, Dapper said it’s difficult to tell when females come into estrous as they exhibit no outward signs other than to males of the species. Once pregnant, the gestation period is about 12 months, she said, as the babies need to form muscle while in the womb to immediately be able to hang onto their mother while in the trees. She said sloths eat, sleep, breed and give birth high above the ground, coming down only to urinate and defecate, on average, every seven days.

At age 7, Lightning is the perfect age for breeding, Dapper said. Sloths can live into their 40s under professional care, so Dapper said it’s no trouble for Moe to be a first-time dad at age 20.

Members of the Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) already have trained Lightning to accept an ultrasound, so they’ll be able to start checking regularly to see if the female sloth is pregnant, Dapper said.

“We have never had a baby sloth at the Cincinnati Zoo,” she said. “So maybe between 10 and 12 months we’ll see. So I’m hoping next year there’s a little Christmas present for us.”