Lucy Cooke and sloth

These days, sloths are everywhere. They've gone from an obscure critter with an insulting name to an Internet sensation. And it's thanks largely to author and photographer Lucy Cooke.

Cooke's children's book A Little Book of Sloth is just the latest installment in her one-woman PR campaign for this previously maligned animal. After a video that went viral, her "Too Cute! Baby Sloths" aired on Animal Planet in 2012. And she has just finished shooting an eight-episode series about sloths, set to air in the fall.

Although Cooke has a rather prestigious background in zoology — she studied with the renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins at the University of Oxford — she didn't leap directly into her current role as global champion for sloths and other underappreciated wildlife. But her more roundabout route was what made her exactly the right woman for the job. 

From Frogs to Sloths

After university, Cooke went to work in television comedy, with comedians including Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. Then she started making documentaries. "They were about everything from architecture to history," she says. "Then I did one natural history one, which I hadn't done before, and thought, why aren't I making natural history documentaries? This is what my passion is."

In particular, Cooke's passion is frogs. "I love frogs — they're my favorite animal. They have an amazing story to tell," she says. "They're the original explorers. In their evolution they made the leap from the water to the land. They're incredibly important in the story of this planet."

Meet the sloths from Lucy Cooke on Vimeo.

And, she discovered, they're incredibly threatened. We're in the midst of a global amphibian extinction crisis, with one-third of species worldwide threatened with extinction. So she figured what could be a more interesting and important subject for a documentary? Unfortunately, no one else in the business agreed. "Everyone would say, 'Nobody's interested in frogs. Do you have any ideas about pandas or meerkats?'"

Undaunted, Cooke went off on her own expedition for six months, writing a blog and making videos in the hopes of persuading skeptics to back her project. But fortunately for the sloths, she was also looking out for a Plan B, and she found it when she visited the Sloth Sanctuary in Costa Rica, the world's first sloth orphanage.

"They struck me as an incredibly charismatic animal with a very idiosyncratic biology that was really fascinating that hadn't been popularized," she says. "The thing about sloths is that their faces are very human — the forward-facing eyes and this endearing smile that's perpetually on their faces."

A Little Book of Sloth

With her professional eye as a visual storyteller, Cooke also noticed that sloths had another advantage: They have very different faces. It's hard for a human to tell one panda from another, but with sloths, viewers would be able to tell the characters apart. "It struck me that they'd be very easy to characterize, and that was something that would make them be popular," she says.

And, of course, sloths were the sort of neglected creature that Cooke is drawn to. "I'm all for telling stories about animals that haven't had their moment in the sun and that need a bit of a PR boost," she says. "With the sloth, it's an animal that's been derided for many years. It was originally named after one of the seven deadly sins, which is pretty damning."

A Viral Affection

Cooke wanted people to appreciate the wonder of sloths instead of pitying them, and with her background not just in zoology but also in television and in social media, she was in the perfect place to pull this off. She'd spent a year working for a magazine and website called Vice, setting up and running their UK video office. "I was really impressed by the urgency and the reactivity and the success of the things that they did, and I really wanted to understand how they did it," she says. "I had quite an education."

So it was no accident that Cooke knew how to produce a video with viral potential and how to capture the attention it got when it took off. But her goal wasn't just to fill your feed with cute photos, and this viral fame has made a real difference for the animals. The sanctuary was about to go under, hit by the economic crisis. "They relied on tourism," she says. "They relied on cruise ships coming through. That was how they made their money, and it had completely dried up."

But after her show aired on Animal Planet, the sanctuary got more than $40,000 in donations. They're also getting a percentage of the proceeds of Cooke's book. Now the sanctuary is in good shape financially and is even expanding its research program. Cooke continues to raise awareness about the sanctuary and is currently supporting its latest fundraising campaign to rehabilitate the orphaned baby sloths and release them back into the wild.

Cooke has taken an unconventional approach to helping conserve a species, but that's what she's peculiarly qualified to do. "I'm very good at making these things entertaining and adding a bit of humor," she says. "Humor is like the sugar coating on the pill — the message is always in there, but I make it a little bit easier to swallow."

Read more Vetstreet articles about animal conservation and volunteering.