Before he traveled to Suriname, the photojournalist Justin Mott had never seen a sloth in person. He had first heard about the country’s sloths in the aftermath of 2012’s “Slothageddon,” a large deforestation event near Paramaribo, when a friend from the German animal welfare organization WTG told him about Monique Pool, a woman who had rescued 135 displaced sloths in the area.
When he touched down in Suriname, the photographer didn’t know what to expect. “I arrived at Monique’s center late in the evening,” he remembers. “When I woke up with my camera in my hand at sunrise, searching for coffee, I thought I spotted a sloth out of the corner of my eye. It actually turned out to be a stuffed animal sloth that they use to comfort rescued sloth; I felt like an idiot.
“The next morning at sunrise, while getting my coffee, I saw something sloth-like out of the corner of my eye and said to myself, ‘I’m not falling for that one again.’ But I looked closer, and there was Ostrich, a sloth who used to live in the center. He was rewilded and often comes by every once in a while to say hello.”
Mott traveled to Pool’s center as part of his ongoing work on Kindred Guardians, a long-term project about people helping animals in need. During his days there, he would spend more time with the sloths and witness two rescues. He also saw Ostrich again every now and then. “Ostrich was named Ostrich because she climbed into the Ostrich section of the local zoo from the wild,” he tells us. “Monique raised her since she was a baby.” While many of the sloths are released far from the center, Ostrich was an exception, as those abandoned or orphaned as infants can be released nearby.
In addition to sloths, Pool also rescues anteaters and armadillos. She got involved in animal rescue after looking for her lost dog at a local shelter; soon after, she took in her first baby sloth. As Mott explains, the government has no official sloth conservation program; Pool created the Green Heritage Fund Suriname in 2005 to help protect them, as well as other wildlife. She’s the go-to person for sloths in need and spends her nights on call. To date, she and her volunteers have rescued, rehabilitated, and relocated more than a thousand of the slow-moving animals.
After Slothageddon, Pool kept the rescued sloths at home, aided by volunteers in their rehabilitation, before they returned to the wild. Unfortunately, her long-time favorite spot for releasing the sloths will soon be used for agricultural purposes, displacing the animals and perhaps giving rise to a second Slothageddon. “The last time we talked, she was still looking for a new location for the sloth relocation area,” Mott says. “Monique is so incredibly inspiring; she works on so many conservation projects, it’s hard to keep track.”
Deforestation isn’t the only threat to sloths, as they also suffer due to climate change and related droughts. During a drought in March of 2019, a number of sloths died of dehydration, and others were abandoned by their mothers; at that time, Pool took in a sloth or two every single day. Ostrich, the two-year-old sloth Mott met on his second morning in Suriname, sadly passed away after the photographer’s visit. Though the cause of death is unknown, dehydration is suspected.
Despite the heartache that comes with losing a sloth like Ostrich, Pool continues her work to save them. When animals come into the center severely dehydrated, she and her team hand-feed them with water, nursing them back to health. The animals living in the wild close to the center receive check-ups to make sure they remain healthy.
Pool receives no government funding and runs her NGO with help from donations, crowd-funding, and WTG in Germany. When Mott asked her what draws her to these extraordinary animals, year after year, as they struggle for survival, she told him simply, “I can watch them for hours. They are sentient beings, the way they look at you, and we have an obligation to live in harmony with nature and sentient beings.”
To learn more about Pool’s work and donate to her organization, visit the Green Heritage Fund Suriname website. Follow Justin Mott on Instagram at @askmott, and learn more about the Kindred Guardians project on his website.