Consider the Sloth
Do animals think? Countless experiments have been undertaken to answer this question and the consensus is: Yes, they do.
I guess I’ve always considered this answer fairly obvious. How would creatures survive if they couldn’t evaluate situations and make appropriate decisions? Lionesses form collective hunts. Crows drop their walnuts into the path of vehicles. Beavers adjust the logs in their dams to control water levels. Plovers fake a broken wing to lure predators away from their nests. God knows what chimps and parrots are capable of.
Just looking at my cat this morning I saw proof of thought. He was on the deck, waiting to come inside. Knowing I was in the kitchen and could not see him at the sliding glass door, he jumped up on the deck railing and into my view. He also has a robust dream life. Like most animals, he twitches in his sleep, and sometimes he wakes himself with a soft, surprised cry. I smile when I see his paws move. I wonder where he has traveled to and whether he’s having a good time.
When they are not trying to acquire food or protect their young or get attention, what do animals think about? When a lion has finished his dinner and is gazing out on the African plain, what is going on in his feline mind?
The sloth. Now there’s an animal with plenty of time to mull things over. Looking at a photo of a sloth—the big eyes, the gently smiling mouth—I am certain that something astonishing is going on in that short, flat head.
Sloths spend their lives hanging upside down from tree branches. In this pose, they eat, sleep, mate, bear young and die; even after death a sloth may hang from a branch for days, as if the divide between death and its sedentary life does not much matter. The world’s slowest mammal—an average clip is six feet a minute— sloths move only when necessary so as not to tax their minimal musculature. On the ground they are awkward and vulnerable, long polished claws serving as their only defense. For this reason, they stay in the trees, descending just once a week to urinate and defecate, digging a hole and covering it up afterward. While slowness might be considered a detriment to survival, this trait is actually an advantage for the sloth, whose lack of motion draws no attention. Another advantage of a slow pace is the chance it gives other life forms to take hold: algae blooms freely on sloths, serving as perfect jungle camouflage, as well as a handy food source.
Nocturnal creatures, sloths forage on their trees from dusk to dawn, methodically eating the fruit, leaves and bark. This roughage is then effortlessly digested, albeit slowly, with the help of multi-compartmentalized stomachs that comprise two-thirds of the animals’ body-weight.
Once a year the female lets out a few loud shrieks, which the male dutifully answers, and after great time and effort, they manage to arrive on the same branch. The mating itself occurs over a period of several minutes, and in what seems to be a tender fashion—sloths are the only mammals other than humans that mate face-to-face. The baby sloth appears six months later and spends much of its first year clinging its mother.
Research shows that sloths spend about ten hours a day sleeping. In the hours the animal is awake but inactive, it hangs from its limb and regards the jungle canopy, moving its flexible neck in increments, blinking now and then. Hidden among the leaves, making no sound or movement, these mute little beasts seem to want just one thing: to be undiscovered.
The two main emotions in life are love and fear, and certainly there is ample evidence that animals feel both. I imagine that when the shadow of a raptor passes overhead, a sloth cringes in fear. What about the lesser emotions, the ones that don’t serve us—like worry? Does a sloth, with all that time he has, worry about eagles and jaguars? Or does he have more productive thoughts, which part of the tree he’ll dine on that night? Or is he, is some deep animal way, simply enjoying himself, his mind a movie screen of pleasant images: leaves, sky, dappled light. When thoughts are not needed, maybe animals are not burdened with them.
It is estimated that people have 60,000 thoughts a day, a figure not as impressive as it sounds. These 60,000 thoughts are the same ones we had yesterday and the same ones we’ll have tomorrow. In our day to day lives, we are not much good at thinking out of the box. A sloth hangs in one tree all its life and, other than single visit from a single mate, has no company. With this scant stimulation, I wonder how many separate daily thoughts a sloth has. A hundred? Twenty? I would trade my 60,000 for a glimpse of them.