Here are further musings, assumptions, and outright appropriations of the wants and habits of the lowly sloth, courtesy of Parley’s Panorama: or Curiosities of Nature and Art, History and Biography (1849).
It must be observed, that the sloth does not hang head downward like the vampyre. When asleep, he supports himself on a branch, parallel to the earth. He first seizes the branch with one arm, and then with the other; and after that brings up both his legs, one by one, to the same branch, so that all four are in a line; he seems perfectly at rest in this position. Now had he a tail, he would be at a loss to know what to do with it, in this position. Were he to draw it up, with his legs, it would interfere with them; and were he to let it hang down, it would become the sport of the winds. Thus his deficiency of tail is a benefit to him. It is merely an apology for a tail, scarcely exceeding an inch and a half in length.
First of all, what tract on comparative zoology has ever used a vampire as an example? I can only assume that they meant a vampire bat. Now every time I see a sloth, I will be telling myself, “Remember, Nick: not a vampire. You don’t have to fear that it will feast on your blood tonight.”
And how does one tell whether a sloth is “at rest” or agitated. They’re sloths. They don’t move too quickly in either state. It’s in the name.
Finally, the tail. The author has no business judging the “apology for a tail” on the thing. Does size really matter to the sloth? Do you think that sloths spend nearly as much time obsessing over and comparing the size of their appendages the way that we do? And how the bloody hell do you know that a sloth with a tail wouldn’t know what to do with it? This writer may have created a new pseudoscientific field that I will call “Speculo-Anthropomorphizing Biological Crapbaggery.”
There is a saying among the Indians of Guiana that, when the wind blows, the sloth begins to travel. In calm weather, he remains tranquil, probably not liking to cling to the brittle extremity of the branches, lest they should break with him, in passing from one tree to another; but as soon as the wind rises, the branches of the neighboring trees become interwoven, and then the sloth seizes hold of them, and pursues his journey in safety. There is seldom an entire day of calm in these forests. The trade-wind generally sets in about ten o’clock in the morning, and thus the sloth may set off after breakfast and get a considerable way before dinner. He travels at a good round pace; and, were you to see him pass from tree to tree, you would never think of calling him a sloth.
I believe the actual saying by the Indians of Guiana is, “When stupid whitey in his pith helmet arrives, it’s time to start making up stories to appear more quaint, thus luring him into a sense of smug cultural superiority before we poison-arrow him and send him downriver tied to a log.”
“One day, as we were crossing the Essequibo,” says Waterton, “I saw a large two-toed sloth on the ground, upon the bank. How he got there, nobody could tell. The Indian said he had never surprised a sloth in such a situation before; he would hardly have come there to drink, for both above and below the place, the branches of the trees touched the water, and afforded him an easy and safe access to it. Be this as it may, though the trees were not above twenty yards from him, he could not make his way through the sand time enough to escape before we landed. As soon as we got up to him, he threw himself upon his back, and defended himself in gallant style, with his fore legs. ‘Come, poor fellow,’ said I to him, ‘if thou hast got into a hobble to-day, thou shalt not suffer for it; -I’II take no advantage of thee in misfortune. The forest is large enough both for thee and me to rove in; go thy ways up above, and enjoy thyself in these endless wilds; it is more than probable thou wilt never have another interview with man; so fare thee well.’
“On saying this, I took up a large stick, which was lying there, held it for him to hook on, and then conveyed him to a high and stately mora. He ascended with wonderful rapidity, and in about a minute he was almost at the top of the tree. He now went off in a side direction, and caught hold of the branch of a neighboring tree; he then proceeded towards the heart of the forest. I stood looking on, lost in amazement at his singular mode of progress. I followed him with my eye, till the intervening, branches closed in betwixt us; and then I lost sight forever of the two-toed sloth. I was going to add, that I never saw a sloth take to his heels in such earnest; but the expression will not do, for the sloth has no heels!”
Who the hell is Waterton? Did I miss something about the man earlier on in the article, or is this a name that was tossed about in 1849 like everyone knew him, like Ellen, or Oprah, or Sting?
I suppose he is a forward-thinking man for that age, since I think most white explorers would have shot the sloth and then had it mounted into a threatening pose for a display in their den. He is incredibly condescending to it, though. My guess is that the sloth dropped a contact lens and was scrounging around for it when “Waterton” showed up and “rescued” it. Now the poor thing gets headaches every time it reads.
Probably the greatest travesty in the whole mess is the thought that there are probably thousands of people that have had to listen to this story when Waterton got drunk on brandy and imperialism. I can picture them all standing around in the great room, women in bustles, men in coats with tails, while he reached the climax of it for the third time that evening:
“I was going to add,” he bellows, face red as a colonial officer’s jacket, “that I never saw a sloth take to his heels in such earnest;” (dramatic pause held about three beats too long) “but the expression will not do, (fnar snicker fnar) for the sloth has no heels!”
“Ha ha. Good one, Waterton. Say, is that the time?”