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The Value of a Tree 

Milena & babyBy Sam Trull, Co-Founder/Sloth Director; The Sloth Institute Costa Rica (TSI)

When I was an elementary school child, I used to plant acorns. One by one I would dig out little tiny holes in the ground, drop in the acorn, cover them up and keep them watered. I would check on them every day. When they first started sprouting I was SO proud. As they continued to get a little bigger I kept an obsessive watch. I would play near them every afternoon just to be with them. In fact, I remember taking my little tiny toy cars (no gender stereotypes here!) outside and I would drive them around the small saplings as if they were giant redwoods. I knew those skinny little green beings would grow up to be big tall trees one day. I remember thinking that I would need to replant them somewhere with more space once they were big enough…I used to daydream about the spots were they would eventually live. They deserved lots of room for their leaves, roots and eventually…their own little acorns. I visualized the birds that would perch on their branches, the woodpeckers that would pound on their trunks. Even at that very young age I understood the value of a tree.
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One day while I was playing in a different part of the yard, a neighborhood friend came over to see my sister. She brought with her a younger sister, a toddler, complete with random bursts of energy and that zig zag pattern while running that seems to only make sense to very small children. At first I didn’t really think much about their visit…I was minding my own business conducting my very important play activity (I think I might have been drawing on the sidewalk with chalk or something) but then I saw her….she was walking around with no apparent purpose and getting dangerously close to my little green babies! My heart started racing, I dropped my chalk, stood up and just as I was starting to charge over she did the unthinkable. Her little tiny toddler feet stepped on my precious herd of acorn saplings! Like the giant marshmallow man in the original Ghostbuster movies she smashed around smiling, pounding her feet while giggling, seemingly oblivious to the damage she was causing below. I’m not exactly sure what I did next. But I was very angry and I was crying and I’m pretty positive I never spoke to her or her sister again. Obviously this little girl was a toddler…a child…looking back I realize she didn’t understand that what she was doing was wrong or the devastating affect it would have on me. She didn’t mean to kill my acorn babies….but the result was the same. Their lives were over and I never tried to plant anymore acorns.

Milena eatingFast forward to last year when I met a sloth named Milena. She arrived at the Kids Saving The Rainforest (KSTR) rescue center with a day old baby attached to her belly. She had just given birth at a dog and cat vet clinic after having been knocked out of a tree. The tree she was living in had literally been…cut…down…with her still in it! The people who cut the tree down didn’t intend to hurt Milena that day…they didn’t intend to break her arm….they didn’t intend to cause premature labor for her unborn baby…in fact they are the ones who took her to the vet clinic, having realized their mistake and hoping to help her. They didn’t intend to hurt any sloths that day…they just wanted to cut down a tree.

Milena had a presence about her…she commanded respect. She was a wild, gorgeous creature that was happy to mind her business so long as you minded yours as well. She had her baby and she was so good with him, even with only one working arm…she would hold him in place while he tried to nurse, she shared leaves with him and nuzzled his little face. When it was time to rest she would curl up around him keeping him warm and protected. She was his world and she wasn’t going to stop being his mom just because her world was drastically altered. After a series of x-rays we realized that she was going to need surgery to have any chance of healing her broken arm and returning to the wild with her baby following behind. Driving her to San Jose for surgery was no easy task. Maneuvering through that crazy traffic is stressful enough alone, but when you’re caring precious cargo it makes you want to yell out the window at everyone whizzing past, “Be careful!  Don’t you dare hit me!” I now understand the motivation behind the creation of those “baby on board” signs.

IMG_0477Luckily her surgery was a success and we were even able to keep the baby on her for the entire procedure so that they were never separated. In the first few weeks post surgery we were very hopeful. Things were looking up for Milena and her baby. It was a lot of hard work and sleepless nights. I was having to supplement the baby with goats milk because he wasn’t gaining weight on his own with just Milena’s milk. It was hardly a surprise considering everything they had both been through. I was even starting to gain Milena’s trust. She would let me hold her to take her outside for bathroom visits, take her baby for feedings and bring him back….she even started to enjoy me grooming her and helping to remove extra ear wax! Don’t get me wrong…she was a WILD animal and if given the chance she would have climbed up into the forest canopy without even looking back. But she made the best out of a terrible situation and during the process we both made a new friend. She knew the difference between me and other people. When I walked up to her and said hello, she looked over for me like she knew I was bringing her a special treat. Her favorite food, young cinnamon leaves, were almost always in my hand and I used to love watching her frantically try to get them in her open mouth…like she had never eaten before and she was starving…basically the same face I make while eating nachos.

Eventually her baby passed away. This whole ordeal was too much on his tiny little body and he was surely born with complications like unhealthy/underdeveloped lungs. Losing him was tough…seeing them together was SO amazing, probably some of the most beautiful moments I will ever witness…were their interactions together. I was worried Milena would be depressed, so I never let her forget that she still had me and that we would keep fighting until her arm was healed and she was back out into the forest. I was so determined that she was going to be free again one day…able to make more babies. But strangely…her arm wasn’t healing. It had been three months since her surgery and her arm was still painful and the X-rays showed the bone was not making enough progress. Finally through some research and comparison with human studies, we realized that her body was rejecting the metal pins placed during surgery. We pulled the pins out and tried applying a regular cast…going back to square one to see if conventional methods would heal the bone.

Immediately after pulling the pins she felt SO much better…this made me hopeful…maybe luck was finally on her side? She was more active and her arm was less swollen. However, after a few weeks with the regular cast, it became clear that she still wasn’t healing. X-rays showed that the damage to her bones was too severe and she was never going to completely heal. Unfortunately the only choice left was to amputate her arm. The day of her amputation surgery…I couldn’t even watch…I was too sad because I knew that this was the beginning of the end for her. How could she be released with only one arm? If she had to spend her life in captivity…there was no way she would survive…her spirit was too strong to be kept in a cage. I visited her every day after her surgery. Bringing her her favorite treats, taking her out to trees to see if she wanted to climb. I was clinging to any shred of possibility that maybe with a lot of help and patience she could learn to live in the wild with only one arm. I was never going to give up on her. But to be honest…she never seemed like herself after the amputation. She had been climbing without a functional arm for months…but now that that dead weight was gone she wasn’t climbing well at all. Her balance was off and she just seemed depressed. I think losing her arm was the final straw. She died two weeks after her amputation. I was with her…holding her head and rubbing her ears. I hope she knew how much I loved her.

Milena lost her home, her baby, her arm, her freedom, and ultimately her life…all because we as a society do not understand the value of a tree. Often, we don’t understand or appreciate the value of most things. Why is it as adults we often crash through life like a toddler, destroying things in our path without a consideration as to how it affects others? We should know better by now. We can do better.

I will never forget Milena or her baby…and the value of their lives…or the value of a tree. Join me in the fight against forest destruction. Share this story and help me remind people to think before they cut. #ThinkBeforeYouCut

3 ways you can support TSI:

  1. Plant a tree donation; go to: tsi.charity.org
  2. Purchase a TSI sloth Amazon wishlist item; find our list by searching info@theslothinstitutecostarica.org
  3. Tell your friends and family about us, like us on FB

For more information, contact us at info@theslothinstitutecostarica.org.  For more information about KSTR and ways to donate: kidssavingtherainforest.org.

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