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It's a sloth's world

Whether two-toed or three-toed, the Internet can't get enough of these lazy critters

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As a reaction to our hectic, hepped-up culture, various "slow" movements have advocated a more measured, less busy approach to life. We've seen Slow Food, Slow Design, Slow Travel, Slow Art, Slow Parenting. It was only a matter of time before we got to Slow Animals.

The latest "It" creature seems to be the sloth. This odd, languid animal, which spends a lot of time sleepily hanging from tree branches in and around Central America, is an unlikely Internet sensation.

There are cuter animals -- otters holding hands. There are smarter animals -- bears playing tetherball. But somehow, the sloth, with its endearing way of peering at the world like some vague, short-sighted great-aunt, is currently on top. When it comes to click-bait headlines, those over-rated pandas have nothing on the somnolent sloth.

Actor Kristen Bell had an emotional moment on Ellen last year when she got all happy-weepy recounting the day her husband surprised her with a face-to-face sloth encounter. "My entire life had been waiting for this moment when I would get to interact with a sloth," she explained tearfully.

Since 2012, the sloth's journey to Internet animal domination has been long and leisurely but weirdly relentless. There are squee-inducing baby sloth videos on YouTube and sloth listicles on BuzzFeed. There is even a sloth feature in the online hipster magazine Vice, which compares the creatures to junkies, perpetually nodding off into their leaves.

Sloths have Facebook fan pages, tons of Tumblr posts, and lots of Twitter action. There are sloth-related memes, like Socially Lazy Sloth. ("Oh no, she likes me. Now I'll have to do stuff.") There are websites that specialize in celebrities who look like sloths and in sloths who look like celebrities.

And when it comes to television, those splashy, snake-fighting meerkats can move on over. The sloths now have their own Animal Planet show. Set in a Costa Rican sloth sanctuary, Meet the Sloths combines the manufactured narratives of reality TV with a massive injection of anthropomorphism to create a slow-motion soap opera.

Meet the Sloths creator and all-round slothophile Lucy Cooke describes the show as "a bit like Dynasty but starring sloths."

That might be overselling the sloth cast members, who are good with deadpan comedy, not bad with suspense, but absolutely terrible with action. Mostly, these sluggish, slightly moth-eaten stars sleep and eat and -- when absolutely consumed by sexual desire -- cover about four metres of ground per minute.

Compared with twerking corgis or photo-bombing goats or even cats, the sloth has a limited repertoire. So why are these creatures having a pop-culture moment? Where is all this sloth love coming from?

Well, first of all there's that smile. The three-toed sloth is one of those fortunate animals that seems like it's smiling -- gently, sweetly, snoozily -- all the time. This smiley-looking state may be human projection rather than verifiable slothy happiness, but even if we suspect that, it's hard not to smile back.

Meanwhile, the two-toed sloth looks like a cross between an Ewok and Wilbur the baby pig from Charlotte's Web. Compared with many famous wild animals, like those cool-kid sharks and tigers and polar bears, sloths are meek and mild and kind of dorky. That's part of their unassuming charm.

Then there's the lure of the unknown. Even with current media coverage approaching boy-band-like overexposure, sloths are essentially enigmatic. One scientist -- a scientist who studies sloths, no less -- describes them as "cryptic." The slothful combination of mystery and perpetual half-smile has led to comparisons with the Mona Lisa.

Ultimately, though, we love sloths because they are slothful. In our time-crunched, multi-tasking, over-scheduled culture, there's an exotic allure to an animal so settled and slow-moving that algae can grow on its fur. Sloths may not do much, but watching them not do much is mesmerizing, magnetic, hypnotic. You can almost feel your heart-rate decreasing.

Originally named after one of the seven deadly sins, sloths were previously dismissed as lazy and stupid. They were viewed as animal layabouts, sort of the ex-boyfriends of the natural world.

With this new Internet prominence, the sloth has been re-branded as a highly successful animal that has a lot to teach us about energy conservation, unhurried concentration on the moment at hand and sleeping. Lots of sleeping.

It doesn't happen very often in pop culture, but sometimes slow and steady wins the race.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2013 D12

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