5:45am. Light clouds. My alarm stirs me from restless sleep and I arise to a day already reeking of sweat. I take a swig of leftover coffee, cold and bitter, that hits me harder than a punch to the jaw. Then I pull on my field vest and slide into two knee-high, snakeproof kevlar boots, after first shaking them out. Scorpions. You never know. Finally, I arm myself with a 26-inch antenna and VHF receiver.
I’m hunting for a sloth. And I always get my sloth.
“You know you look kinda like a cowboy?”
“Huh?” I ask, my boots forcing me to swagger a little, not to mention the fact that my pants are wet from rain and starting to cling uncomfortably.
My volunteer assistant nods at my getup. She’s trying to keep a straight face. “Huge boots. Long coat. The hat. I used to watch a lot of old American Westerns. Howdy pardner.”
“I…what? I wear this for rain. Which it usually is. And also snakes.”
“Or maybe a detective. Like from those–what are those films called? Noire? You even carry a flask under your arm.”
“It’s cappuccino, and that just makes it easier to access. Please watch where you’re going.”
But she’s not listening. “It’s like we’re out to catch a criminal on the run. What’d this sloth do? Climb the wrong tree? Eat the wrong leaf? He just couldn’t escape his past.”
6:08am. The memory of yesterday morning fades, like all pleasant memories do. The dame was filling a silence that didn’t need to be filled. Today, the forest fills that on its own. The shrill cries of insects and birds pierce my ears as I stride towards the trees, through a neglected field of tall grass and deep mud. The ground sucks and gasps at my feet.
Then I hear it: a slight beeping, coming from the receiver. I tweak the gain nob and home in on its direction. Dead ahead. Slightly uphill. I allow myself a shallow smile. Just as I expected.
I’m on the trail of a sloth. And I always get my sloth.
“Why are we doing this, again?”
“We need data on sloths post release to evaluate our rehabilitation strategy–” I begin, then stop and backpedal since I’ve just walked face-first into a massive spiderweb that for some reason tastes like peanut butter.
“And that’s really worth all this equipment? And, like, getting up in the morning? And dressing like Clint Eastwood?”
I’m too busy extracting spider silk from my hair to roll my eyes. “Consistent observations are the only way get any baseline data. No one’s really studied this before. Not definitively.”
The volunteer moved closer. “Pardner, you got a spider on your forehead.”
6:32am. She didn’t stick around. Dames never do. But it’s better this way. There are some things you have do yourself. Man to sloth.
The beeping gets louder. I try to rotate the antenna around to get a bearing, but it gets tangled in vines. Ten o’clock. There’s hardly any space to move. The forest doesn’t allow the thought of freedom. It’s merciless that way.
But I’m close. So very close. The beeping’s reached a fever pitch, and I’m getting ghost signals. With a growl, I push through one last tangle of vines and into a small clearing.
And there he is. About 8 meters up a tree, curled in the fork of a branch. My quarry.
“Hello, Jorge. Long time no see.”
“So that’s him? You’re sure that’s not just a stuffed animal you put up there to save face?”
“It’s a two-toed sloth, so he’s supposed to be asleep right now. And look, the signal’s coming from the collar on his neck.”
“So that’s it? You just come out here every morning and then watch him for a while?”
“And record every action he makes in a 30-minute follow.” I get out a notebook and stopwatch. “You want to spot or record first?”
Her eyes haven’t left the sloth. “But does he ever do anything?”
“In the mornings, sometimes he scratches himself once or twice. Follow starts…now.”
The sloth doesn’t move. Rain begins to fall. The volunteer shifts her feet. “You hear they’re doing a 3rd season of Westworld?”
6:36am. “Been a while, Jorge. 12 hours precisely, to be exact.” Jorge looks down at me and blinks. I scribble in my notes 0636 SLOTH VIGILANT
“It was quite a chase, running you down. You really covered some country. Gotta say, that’s pretty impressive considering you sleep 20 hours a day.” Indeed, he’s moved a whole 200 meters in a straight line, roughly, since we released him a week ago.
Jorge starts to scratch himself, then falls asleep halfway through. “Just so you know, I’ll be back here tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. At for another few weeks, until the collar’s batteries start to die and we need to recapture you for a physical exam. And also because that collar costs like 150 dollars. We can’t let you keep it.”
He yawns, then scratches himself again. Playing it cool. But I know defeat when I see it.
I’ve got my sloth. I always get my sloth.