After a fast-paced few months preparing for the Cincinnati Zoo’s latest arrival, things have finally started to slow down as Juno the two-toed sloth makes herself at home.
In June, the Cincinnati Zoo welcomed a newborn sloth named Juno, who was born into captivity from the zoo’s two resident sloths, Lightning and Moe.
Zookeeper Tami Ware has been working with the Cincinnati Zoo to help two-toed sloth Lightning throughout her pregnancy. In working with the sloth (and her new pup), Ware learned quite a bit about sloths and their habits.
They had a recommendation from the Species Survival Plan (SSP) to breed Moe and Lightning in an effort to maintain the captive population of two-toed sloths. While two-toed sloths are currently considered a species of least concern according to the IUCN, their wild population is still decreasing due to hunting and deforestation.
Following the SSP recommendation, the zoo introduced Lighting and Moe to each other, after which they were able to successfully mate. The two were then separated while the zoo monitored Lightning’s pregnancy.
In the wild, male sloths typically won’t stay with the mother or be involved with raising the pup. That’s why Moe was separated from Lightning for the duration of her pregnancy. “He’s pretty much out of it,” Ware says. “He helped create it, and that’s all his part is. He’s living his best life on exhibit, as he should be.”
While Moe has been staying in the rainforest enclosure, the Zoo staff have been focused on ensuring Juno’s health during the pup’s first few months. This means regularly checking weight, blood samples, and other health indicators. However, even with all of this information being taken, the pup’s gender is still unknown. Because two-toed sloths have internal sex organs, it’s near-impossible to tell through just observation. “A lot of times we’ll have to do blood work. Or, once the pup is fully grown, we’ll do ultrasounds. At that point, we’ll be able to tell what their internal sex organs are,” Ware says.
Currently, keepers are weighing Juno twice a day to ensure that their development is meeting expected milestones. Along with this, they’re supplementing the pup with extra nutrients, including Pedialyte, to help with weight gain.
In welcoming Juno, one of the major aspects was moving on from Lightning’s first pregnancy in 2021. While the pregnancy was carried to term, the pup was stillborn. Keepers felt a great deal of grief over this, Ware says, but hopes were high going into Lightning’s second pregnancy. “That was a big, big heartbreak,” Ware says. “I’ve been really nervous since then about if this was actually going to be a successful birth or not. You have to be a little bit guarded, to try not to let it hurt too much. But you want to be helpful at the same time. So it’s finding that right balance.”
While this experience was difficult for the staff, Ware says these kinds of things are surprisingly common with animals—both captive and in their natural habitats. “When they’re first-time moms and they have babies, there are a high number that don’t survive, or they’re stillborn, or there’s a miscarriage, or something like that,” Ware says. “It happens in the wild as well. We’re finding out more and more how common it is for the first time to not survive, but it still doesn’t make it any easier.”
However, Ware says Lightning’s recent pregnancy went perfectly—she was able to deliver the new pup without any complications, and so far Juno has been faring incredibly well. Ware says the zoo has worked to include the entire staff of zookeepers in taking care of the new pup, along with bringing in external researchers to ensure everything is progressing properly. “Lightning had enough trust in us to be able to bring in our vet staff and bring in other scientists and researchers and doctors, and allow them to be a part of the study,” she says.
Despite popular belief, Ware says that sloths can be incredibly fast when they want to be—not just compared to what we expect from a sloth, but even in general. “Lightning can be really chill, especially around the keepers,” Ware says, “but she’s fast when she wants to be, and she’s actually fast a lot. Her name is very appropriate.”
Ware compares Lightning’s speed to when house pets “get the zoomies” and run around for a period of time. When she’s excited, she can traverse the entire rainforest exhibit in less than a minute as she swings through the foliage.
Once Juno has grown a bit and gotten more acclimated to people, Ware says the pup might be able to meet zoo attendees and interact with them, much like how Moe does. In meeting the sloths, visitors have noted how soft they are. Ware can confirm. “Each sloth has their own texture,” she says. “Everybody always makes comments that Moe’s fur feels like it’s like a lush head of hair, and that he’s been to the beauty parlor. But lightning’s hair is crazy, frizzy, wiry, and completely the opposite.”
Currently, Ware is interested to see whether Juno’s fur stays soft or if it slowly takes on Lightning’s rougher, wiry texture. And as you might expect, seeing a baby sloth discover the world is incredibly adorable, according to Ware. Even with all the stresses of taking care of a newborn animal, there are countless moments of joy.
“We are totally obsessed. I’ve seen videos and pictures of baby sloths, but being up close with one is cuter than I could even imagine,” she says.