Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Naturalists - Charles Waterton and Sloths

I first became acquainted with Charles Waterton in Edith Sitwell’s The English Eccentrics. Waterton clearly admires nature: although his methods may be less than ideal (he dissected a sloth on the spot), he was one of the first people to appreciate animals as ends in themselves, not as an extension of the human world (for entertainment, food or moral instruction – e.g. medieval bestiaries). Further, he was the first person to create a bird ‘preservation’, an idea completely foreign to his contemporaries--he built a wall around acres of his land, installing look-out stations to ward off poachers.

The following fascinating extract is taken from Waterton’s Wanderings in South America. In 1804, he visited Demerara (today one of three counties of Guyana, South America).

“His looks, his gestures and his cries all conspire to entreat you to take pity on him. These are the only weapons of defence which nature hath given him. While other animals assemble in herds, or in pairs range through these boundless wilds, the sloth is solitary and almost stationary he cannot escape from you. It is said his piteous moans make the tiger relent and turn out of the way. Do not then level your gun at him or pierce him with a poisoned arrow—he has never hurt one living creature. A few leaves, and those of the commonest and coarsest kind, are all he asks for his support. On comparing him with other animals you would say that you could perceive deficiency, deformity and superabundance in his composition. He has no cutting-teeth, and though four stomachs, he still wants the long intestines of ruminating animals. He has only one inferior aperture, as in birds. He has no soles to his feet nor has he the power of moving his toes separately. His hair is flat, and put you in mind of grass withered by the wintry blast. His legs are too short; they appear deformed by the manner in which they are joined to the body, and when he is on the ground, they seem as if only calculated to be of use in climbing trees. He has forty-six ribs, while the elephant has only forty, and his claws are disproportionably long. Were you to mark down, upon a graduated scale, the different claims to superiority amongst the four-footed animals, this poor ill formed creature’s claim would be the last upon the lowest degree.”


Waterton, C., (1925), Wanderings in South America, Everyman’s Library, J.M. Dent and Sons, London



SoapyChica said...

Aaah, I love sloths!

FireHorse3 said...

Charming creatures - so shy, and perfectly adapted for their environment.