As founder of Sloth Institute Costa Rica, Sam Trull is a busy woman. But when a pregnant sloth fell out of a tree, her commitment to rehabilitating wildlife reached new levels. The animal got an emergency C-section, perhaps the first ever for a sloth.
The newly re-designed BBC Earth reports what happened on September 27 when Trull got a call about an injured sloth:
The animal turned out to be a female brown-throated sloth ( Bradypus variegatus), the most common of the three-toed sloths...When Trull inspected the sloth, she found she was having seizures and having difficulty moving her limbs.
On the Sloth Institute's website, Trull describes the situation:
At the time this was the first sloth seizure I had ever seen and true to sloth nature, it was a 'slow' seizure. It was more like a neurotic tick than a typical seizure seen in human and non-human primates. Upon examination I determined that she had not fractured her skull (yay!) and that she was pregnant (not so yay).
After speaking with our vet, I started her medications and of course supportive care. Now it became a waiting game. A few days later she wasn't looking much better. Her eyes were bright and her lungs sounded good, she just wasn't moving much and still had some rigidity to her limbs. Her prognosis was not good and euthanasia was even discussed. I've seen a lot of animals pass away during the two years that I've worked in wildlife rescue here in Costa Rica and after each death I often think, "how can I keep doing this? It's too hard," but somehow I find the will to keep fighting. That day, I wanted to keep fighting for this mom and her unborn baby, my gut told me not to give up.
After three days of treatment with steroids, Trull's new slothy friend began to show signs of labor. She began have contractions and expressing milk. She could feel the baby kicking, which was a good sign.
But after staying up all night timing the contractions, Trull grew worried because the birth did not seem to be any closer. She packed the sloth up and took it to a vet in the town of Herradura. BBC Earth:
The vet carried out an examination as well as a CT scan and an X-ray, which confirmed the baby was alive but in a breech position – feet-first, when it needed to be head-first. Worse, the injured mother had a full bladder, which meant the baby was stuck like that. Sloths empty their bowels and bladders only about once a week, and can hold up to 30% of their own body weight in faeces and urine. So the baby was unlikely to be able to turn around for a normal, head-first birth.
"We determined it was an emergency, and that the only chance we had to save either or both of them was to do a C-section," says Trull.
After the vet consulted with colleagues, the sloth was anesthetized and then her bladder was drained making it possible for the doctors to extract the infant. After thirty minutes of work, the baby sloth's head appeared.
The baby seemed to be losing body heat, so he - it was a male - was placed onto Trull's chest, a technique sometimes called "kangaroo care" that relies on skin-to-skin contact, which is commonly used following human births, especially for infants born prematurely.
Despite making veterinary history, the story does not have a happy ending. The baby had a heart murmer and lung problems, and was not able to feed adequately. One week after he was born, the baby died.
The mother continued to decline as well. Her fall from the tree not only caused her pregnancy complications, but also neurological problems. She died the next day.
(Left: Trull holding the newborn baby to her chest.)
"It was devastating but not entirely surprising," Trull told BBC Earth. "Ultimately it's not the quantity of life that counts but the quality. I'm glad he had a week, and that he had some snuggles with his mom. I was at least able to unite mother and baby before they died, so it might not have been a very long life but at least it was a life."
The Sloth Institute put together some video footage of the procedure. It's super fascinating, but probably not for the squeamish. You've been warned: