Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica photos: Meet the world's cutest animals

Can you fall head over heels at first sight if the object of your affections is considered lazy, dirty and only goes to the toilet once a week?

The answer – clearly written across the charmed faces of our group at the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica – is a most definite YES.

"It's very easy to fall in love with a sloth," confirms guide Jeff Rochte, clearly himself smitten with the slow-moving, ever-smiling animals.

Rochte, an American who has lived in Costa Rica for the past nine years, is here to help carry on the legacy started by his grandparents – Alaskan Judy Avey-Arroyo and her late husband, Costa Rican Luis Arroyo.

The couple bought 230 acres of land on the Caribbean Coast in 1972, with the aim of protecting the lowland tropical rainforest. In the early days, they found themselves helping injured toucans, pythons, armadillos and other exotic creatures, before the first sloth in need of care arrived in 1992.

Since then the sanctuary has nurtured hundreds of troubled sloths, releasing 120 back into the wild.

There are many head-spinning facts about the furry sloth - starting with the fact the mammals can rotate their heads 270 degrees. For the non-mathematicians out there, that equals an infinite number of angles to be enchanted by a sloth's one-of-a-kind, happy face.

The sloths – which to my mind bring back memories of TV wiseguy ALF – leave you instantly hankering for a cuddle. And that's before you even get to the sanctuary's sloth nursery, which has our group cooing like a bunch of new mums.

Sadly, Rochte informs us, there's no touching the animals unless they're well used to your scent. For the record, the sloths smell like earth, or porridge near their noses.

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When he picks up a furry sloth called Millie, the crowd goes wild – iPhones furiously snapping away, while delighted giggles and a communal 'awwww'  fills the enclosure.

Then there's the one-armed sloth called Toyota, who was electrocuted by a power line and later attacked by a vulture. Rochte, familiar with the animals' every behaviour, judges by Toyota's weight that he's in dire need of the toilet.

While sloths can be strong and resilient animals (they can hang on one arm for hours, and survive a fall of about 30 metres) it takes them up to one month to digest their food. When they finally carry out their ablutions, they lose up to two kilograms in one go.

Rochte carries Toyota outside, and we watch voyeuristically as the sloth gracefully squats on the grass to do his business, all the while holding on to the guide's hand (Rochte stresses that this is not a usual feature of the tour).

Weirdly, it's the cutest thing I've ever seen, and the utter relief has Toyota smiling even more widely than before.

While sloths have charmed today's gaggle of tourists, they haven't always got a good rap.

The Spanish word for sloth – perezoso – means lazy, and that's how they are generally viewed. However Rochte is inclined to defend his beloved creatures.

"Everyone thinks sloths are lazy. But what's the definition of lazy - someone not doing something that they're supposed to do? What are sloths supposed to be doing?" he asks, quite rightly.

Guides around Costa Rica give a highly varied answer when it comes to the number of hours that most sloths hang around sleeping, high up in the trees.

Rochte says they generally sleep about eight to 12 hours a day, and are most active at night.

Fittingly, given their reputation, the collective noun for a group of sloths is a 'bed'. However, sloths generally prefer to be alone (except when they're feeling toey, which is reportedly often).

While sloths can be found in a number of countries, Costa Rica is home to the largest number in Central America – specifically the two and three-toed varieties.

If you do visit Costa Rica and fall in love with a sloth, forget getting one as a pet in Costa Rica, where they are protected by law.

Oddly however, it is apparently legal in some parts of the US, which is enough to leave a sloth-lover's head spinning in consternation.

Explore the Sloth Sanctuary in the photo gallery above.

The Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica is located about 30 kilometres south of the port city of Limón in Penhurst, and is three to four hours' drive from the capital, San José. The sanctuary, closed every Monday, offers two tours. A Buttercup Tour runs on the hour from 8am until 2pm and costs $US25. The tour takes two hours; no reservations needed. Insider Tours run for about four hours twice daily. The cost is $US150; bookings required. For more details go to www.slothsanctuary.com.   

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