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Waterton's Account Of The South

( Originally Published 1851 )



The character and habits of that singular annual, the Sloth, according to Charles Waterton, the enthusiastic traveller in the wilds of' South America, have been strangely misrepresented by naturalists. " This singular animal (says he) is destined by nature to be produced, to live, and to die, in the trees. Ile is a scarce and solitary animal, and, being good food, he is never allowed to escape. He inhabits remote and gloomy forests, where snakes take up their abode, and where cruelly-stinging ants and scorpions, and swamps, and innumerable thorny shrubs and bushes, obstruct the steps of civilized men. This, then, is the proper place to go in quest of the Sloth. We will first take a near view of him. By obtaining a knowledge of his anatomy, we will be enabled to account for his movements. His fore-legs, or, more correctly speaking, his arms, are apparently much too long, while his hind-legs are very short, and look as if they could be bent almost to the shape of a cork-screw. Both the fore and hind legs, by their form, and by the manner in which they are joined to the body, are quite incapacitated from acting in a perpendicular direction, or in supporting it on the earth, as the bodies of other quadrupeds are supported, by their legs. hence, when you place him on the floor, his belly touches the ground. Now, granted that he supported himself on his legs like other animals, nevertheless he would be in pain, for he has no soles to his feet, and his claws are very sharp and long, and curved; so that, were his body supported by his feet, it would be by their extremities, just as your body would be, were you to throw yourself on all-fours, and try to support it on the ends of your toes and fingers. Were the floor of a polished surface, the sloth would actually be quite stationary; but as the ground is generally rough, with little protuberances upon it, such as stones, or roots of grass, this just suits the Sloth, and he moves his fore-legs in all directions, in order to find something to lay hold of; and when he has succeeded, he pulls himself forwards, and is thus enabled to travel onwards, but, at the same time, in so tardy and awkward a manner, as to acquire him the name of the Sloth. Indeed, his looks and his gestures evidently betray his uncomfortable situation; and as a sigh every now and then escapes him, we may be entitled to conclude that he is actually in pain.

" Some years ago I kept a Sloth in my room for several months. I often took him out of the house, and placed him upon the ground, in order to have an opportunity of observing his motions. If the ground were rough, he would pull himself forwards by means of his fore-legs, at a pretty good pace; and he invariably shaped his course towards the nearest tree. His favorite abode was the back of a chair; and after getting all his legs in a line upon the topmost part of it, he would hang there for hours together, and often, with a low and inward cry, would seem to invite me to take notice of him. The Sloth, in its wild state, spends its whole life in the trees, and never leaves them but through force, or by accident. An all-ruling Providence has ordered man to tread on the surface of the earth, the eagle to soar in the expanse of the skies, and the monkey and squirrel to inhabit the trees; still these change their relative situations without feeling much inconvenience; but the Sloth is doomed to spend his whole life in the trees; and, what is more extraordinary, not upon the branches, like the squirrel and the monkey, but under them. He is as much at a loss to proceed on his journey upon a smooth and level floor, as a man would be who had to walk a mile upon a line of feather-beds. He moves suspended from the branch, he rests suspended from it, and he sleeps suspended from it. To enable him to do this, he must have a very different formation from that of any other known quadruped. Hence, his seemingly bungled conformation is at once accounted for; and in lieu of the Sloth leading a painful life, and entailing a melancholy and miserable existence on its progeny, it is but fair to surmise that it enjoys life just as much as any other animal, and that its extraordinary formation and singular habits are but farther proofs to engage us to admire the wonderful works of Omnipotence.

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