When sloths are in trouble, she's the one you call

Story highlights

  • In Suriname, Monique Pool's group has rescued, rehabilitated and released more than 600 animals
  • Nominations are open for 2016 CNN Heroes
  • Watch Pool and other Top 10 Heroes on "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute" now on CNNgo

Paramaribo, Suriname (CNN)Sloths. They hang from trees, move very slowly and make people smile with just one look.

In recent years, the Internet has helped these creatures achieve an almost cult-like status among animal lovers. But in the South American country of Suriname, one woman has been the sloths' passionate protector for more than a decade.
    Monique Pool discovered her love for these animals in 2005. While looking for her lost dog, she called the Animal Protection Society and learned that a baby sloth had been orphaned. Pool offered to take it in.
    "I didn't know anything about sloths, but I learned a lot," said Pool, who sought advice from international experts on how to care for the animals. "Now, when sloths are injured or in trouble, all the telephone calls come to us. The police, the fire brigade -- even the zoo calls me."
    "Some people refer to me as 'The Sloth Lady.' I think it's an honor."
    Today, Pool's nonprofit, Green Heritage Fund Suriname, helps protect sloths and implement other conservation efforts in the country. Her home serves as a temporary sanctuary for the mammals, and she is now a recognized local authority on them.
    Pool also takes in anteaters, armadillos and porcupines. To date, she and her volunteers have rescued, rehabilitated and released more than 600 animals back to the rainforest.
    "When I release a sloth, I feel really happy because the animal is where he belongs. That's the ultimate goal of my work," Pool said. "Wild animals belong in the wild."
    CNN talked with Pool about life with sloths and her other environmental work. Below is an edited version of the conversation.
    CNN: What kinds of risks are sloths facing here in Suriname?
    Monique Pool: Suriname is 94% forested, which is the highest forest cover of any country in the world. Sloths that occur in this part of the world are not endangered, but that doesn't mean that they are not threatened.
    Here, the risk that sloths are facing is mainly in the urban area near Paramaribo (the country's capital). I get an average of one call a week. As the city grows, the animals are losing their forest habitat really fast. So in the little bit that's left, that's where they all congregate. And they end up in people's gardens, dogs attack them, they get onto people's balconies. You name it, I've seen it, and I've rescued them.
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    My biggest rescue ever was in 2012 when we heard about this plot of land that was going to be cleared. I was told there were 14 animals there, but we rescued 200 -- around 160 of which were sloths. We call this "Slothageddon." Sloth Armageddon.
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    That's what it was for them; it was the end of the world. During that time, it was really a bit weird to live here because there were sloths everywhere: in my living room, in cages, in my garage. Dozens of volunteers were helping. I was "slothified" -- overwhelmed by sloths.
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    CNN: What's it like living with sloths?
    Pool: Sloths are not pets, but I do share my house with them, and it's a very special experience. I can watch them for hours.
    A sloth sleeps, it grooms, it eats and it sleeps a little bit more -- that's its whole life. They poop once a week, which is actually ideal. I don't really like keeping them in cages, so some roam freely, but others I need to keep in cages outside.
    Every animal has his very own personality. Some are more curious, some are more laid back. They're very intelligent, deliberate animals. They will not just hop, like monkeys can, from tree to tree. They will touch the branch, see if it's sound and only then will they start moving. And they're very content to be with themselves. I think we humans could learn a lot from them.
    CNN: Your ultimate goal with a rescue is to release the sloth back into the rainforest. How does that work?
    Pool: I have two different locations where I release them, where I know they will be safe. We look for a nice tree, put the kennel up to it and let them go. Once the animal smells the forest, I can see how the energy changes and how it knows that it's home again. For me, that's the best part.
    But I live in the middle of the city, so we are working to build a professional rehabilitation center in the forest, so we can give the animals an opportunity to practice their "sloth skills" before they are released. It will also be a good place to educate people about the animals and about how beautiful and important the rainforests are.
    CNN: You sort of stumbled into caring for sloths. How has your conservation work evolved over the years?
    Pool: I grew up in the Netherlands, and when I came back to Suriname, I ended up getting a job with Conservation International (an environmental nonprofit). Eventually, I realized that I wanted to work more in the coastal area, since that's where the decisions are made and where people live.
    Saving sloths is just one part of what we do. We also work on dolphins and ocean protection. We've taken more than 5,000 people out to experience dolphins on the Suriname River, a beautiful, intact mangrove river. Now others have started doing this, and we have created a tourism industry around the dolphins.
    The sloths and the dolphins are a starting point for doing bigger things. They are really good animals to help people appreciate their environment more. If we want to protect them, we have to preserve the environment.
    Want to get involved? Check out the Green Heritage Fund Suriname website at www.greenfundsuriname.org and see how to help.