Long Goodbye

Meet One of Houston Zoo’s Oldest Residents: Succotash the Sloth

The so-called “Grumpy Cat of wild animals” is a bit of a mystery.

By Alice Levitt September 19, 2016 Published in the October 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Image: Houston Zoo

We know this much about the two-fingered choloepus sloth: Its soft, rubbery nose, long, wiry hair and perpetual grin have made it a social media darling—the Grumpy Cat of wild animals. What we don’t know is pretty much everything else. The nocturnal mammals, native to Central and South America, are notoriously hard to study. They’ve rarely been tagged in the wild, and even in captivity, researchers have been unable to follow their long lifespan from start to finish.

Succotash, the sole choloepus on display at the Houston Zoo, has lush white hair and an eraser-colored snout. Beginning life in the wild, she was captured full-grown in 1975, which, according to senior keeper Abby Varela, makes her at least 46 years old, one of the longest-living known examples of her species.

The animal considered to be the world’s oldest sloth—Paula, who resides at Zoo Halle in Germany—is 47. If Paula’s title is accurate, then Succotash isn’t far behind. In fact, it’s possible she’s even older, given the fact that female sloths don’t reach sexual maturity until about 3 years of age.

Besides the occasional UTI—likely attributable to a diet of fruits and veggies such as grapes and zucchini that, while healthy, differs from the native leaves and fruits she’d eat in the South American wild—Succotash hasn’t shown much sign of aging during the nine years Varela has worked with her. “You may not see many physical changes, but if I were to look at a picture of her seven years ago, she may have looked a little bit younger,” Varela guesses.

Because handling by humans can raise a sloth’s heart rate to a dangerous clip, Varela and her team have trained Succotash to slowly lower herself into a kennel for regular weigh-ins. This is impressive not only because, apparently, you can teach an old sloth new tricks, but because her weight has remained stable. She is bright-eyed, and as responsive to Varela and fellow keeper Sydney Fitzpatrick as a non-social animal can be expected to be, looking to them for yet another green bean to be popped in her mouth.

With their sluggish metabolism, sloths don’t need to eat every day. Succotash does, though, and poops twice a week, double the normal rate; as needed, she consumes Metamucil cracker–stuffed grapes. When she’s not eating, she can be found hanging from a branch in the manmade rainforest canopy of the zoo’s Natural Encounters building, surrounded by birds and monkeys whom she seems to ignore.

Researchers suspect that sloths fall into the same slow-metabolism, long-life category as turtles. Varela, however, prefers to think of Succotash as immortal. “We made a deal with her,” says Varela. “We keep feeding her, and she’ll live forever.” But what if, one day, this sweet girl goes the way of all other flesh? Will the zoo be prepared?

Yes and no. A roughly 20-year-old male choloepus named Curly lives in the same building as Succotash, out of the public (and her) eye, having arrived at the zoo three years ago to participate in educational programs. He could potentially fill Succotash’s branch in the Natural Encounters building, although a zoo rep told us he’s been such a great ambassador in his current role, that’s unlikely.

The Houston Zoo long ago ceased to get its animals from the wild. Today, it sources its inhabitants through other top institutions nationwide, who now share and breed animals with the goal of maintaining biodiversity. If the zoo decides to keep Curly in his old job, a new sloth might be chosen through this system. Perhaps another zoo will have had a birth or two, and be willing to part with one.

But of course, none of this matters. Succotash is going to live forever.

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