Author Spotlight with Graham Marks
Lucy Cooke is, in her own words, ‘a National Geographic explorer, award-winning TV producer, presenter and best-selling author with a Masters in zoology and a passion for odd animals’. She has also founded Slothville.com, the HQ of the Sloth Appreciation Society. Here she talks to Graham Marks about how an online video changed her life, how to pronounce the word ‘sloth’ correctly, and about her new book The Power of Sloth...
First off, I’ve got to say, what a fabulous book! It just makes you smile – and made me laugh out loud as well…
Thank you so much!
So I gather you have a TV background, is that right?
I’m a bit of a strange beast, I’m hard to define…I studied zoology at Oxford - I was lucky, I was taught by Richard Dawkins* - and when I left I moved straight into comedy…
[*scientist, evolutionary biologist and author of a number of books, including The Selfish Gene]
[Laughs] A natural move!
A natural move, exactly…and I started out working for Channel X, the production company Jonathan Ross had in the 90s, which used to make programmes like The Last Resort and Vic and Bob. It was a kind of hey day of British comedy and I was very lucky to work on lots of really cool shows through that job.
And then you moved onto something more serious?
Yeah, I did…I just wanted to make documentaries; but while the documentaries that I’ve made have all had factual subject matter, they’ve generally been presented in an entertaining and light-hearted way. For instance, I directed Terry Jones in a series called Terry Jones’s Medieval Lives, which is about medieval history, and you can pretty much name a comedian and I’ve directed them – it's a slightly lighter, presented-led, factual content style. Which probably explains my handling of sloths; that’s really what I love to do, mix information with humour to make it entertaining and more consumable, I suppose.
Did you find academia a little too serious?
I was never going to be an academic…I loved my subject hugely, I’m fascinated by zoology, but, yeah, I was never going to be an academic.
But you must have been fairly serious about it to get to Oxford in the first place.
Um…yeah…I guess really at heart I’m a storyteller, and although I think biology does tell some of the greatest stories on the planet, my urge to tell stories is in a different form than academically – it’s about telling broader stories to a wider audience.
You started on TV behind the camera, but did you always want to be out in front, presenting?
Well, yes…I suppose I did. But if you’d asked me that question five years ago I’d have said ‘No, no, no, no, no!”, but the reality is, I left Oxford and wanted to be David Attenborough. That’s what I wanted, but I had absolutely no idea how one would to get to have that job - getting onto TV seemed almost impossible, let alone being able to make natural history programmes.
I always thought, as much as I love David Attenborough, that natural history was, until very recently, quite staid and reverential and straight in its presentation; I’ve been much more attracted to using humour in my storytelling, so it’s taken me quite a long time to come back to the genre for that reason.
Now that you are in front of the camera, does it feel like that's where you always should have been?
It feels like everything [up until now] has been relevant…I love it and the first time I stepped in front of the camera it was like the glove that fit and I did think ‘Wow - why didn’t I do this a long time ago!’. It’s something that I find incredibly easy, although, I’m told that not many people do, but nevertheless I’m really pleased that I had those years behind the camera as a film maker because I think it makes me better at my job and gives me a more rounded understanding of what I’m trying to do as a broadcaster.
And so we come to the big question: why sloths [here pronounced slow-ths]…or is it sloths [here pronounced slo-ths]? I never know.
I say sloth, because there’s a moth that lives on the sloth, and it’s a sloth moth, not a slowth mowth – I understand that there’s huge debate about this, but I understand that sloth is the animal and slowth is the sin.
But why the sloth…oh well, there’s two reasons: one, I always love the misfits, the underdogs and the unloved, and second I’m fascinated by animals who have been misunderstood and don't get the appreciation they deserve and the sloth to me is possibly the most misunderstood animal on the planet. It’s derided for being lazy and stupid and nobody really understands that being slow and sleeping a lot is not something that’s dysfunctional, it’s highly functional. It’s actually an incredibly successful evolutionary strategy, thank you very much.
So it’s a wonderful story to tell, and their eccentric biology and the fact that they’re misunderstood make them the ideal subject matter for me.
How did you meet Judy Arroyo and get involved with the sloth sanctuary?
It was about five years ago, and somebody sent me one of those online viral funnies, and it was this video of an incredibly itchy baby sloth that couldn’t stop scratching it’s head…
The one where the two guys filming it are cracking up?
Yeah, and I just loved that video, I had fits over this bizarre-looking scratchy, mini, hairy Yoda, the likes of which I’d never seen before. I was enchanted by the two men who couldn’t stop laughing and even more attractive was the woman in the background who’s trying to persevere with telling them, in a very earnest fashion, about who this baby sloth is. And then I Googled it and I found there was a whole sanctuary [on Costa Rica] devoted to saving sloths and I thought that sounds just like a soap opera! What place just looks after sloths and has over a hundred of them? That has got to be a good story…I mean who on earth decides to do that? They must be interesting characters.
Did the process go: first the online video, then the documentary and then book deal?
No, what happened was that I made the video, Meet the Sloths, that went very, very viral, and that all happened extremely fast, in a decidedly un-slothlike way, in fact. I posted it and it had a million viewers within ten days…
…you’ve got so many sloth gags, it’s great - do you have a book of them?
[Laughs] Well, yeah – I mean you’re talking to me about it! But I do have more than that – I do a whole one hour lecture on the Sloth Appreciation Society, so you get the complete gamut of my sloth humour in that hour…loads of crazy things happened off the back of that video, and my blog, the first of which was that [the US office of] Simon & Schuster got in touch and said they loved my photos and my writing and did I want to do a book? And I said yes, and then shortly after that the Discovery Channel got in touch and asked if I would be interested in making a documentary; so actually, even though the book came out after the documentary, it was the book which came first.
Right…did you have any idea of the power of the viral video before this happened to you?
I thought my video was good, because I couldn’t stop watching it myself and it was making me laugh – and I’m a huge fan of laughing at my own jokes - but no, I had no idea it would be something I’d be talking about four years down the line, with a hit documentary, a TV series and a New York Times bestselling book under my belt. I’d have probably been a bit scared if I’d known, I might have had more trepidation about posting the video had I known what was going to happen.
You’re quoted as saying that ‘we can’t afford to let a single species disappear’. Have you always felt like that, or was it the sloths which made you think this way?
I’m a huge champion of the importance of biodiversity. What I always say is that Nature is a game of Jenga: we don’t know which brick will make the whole stack collapse if we pull it out. And it’s true, the natural world is an incredibly misunderstood jigsaw puzzle and we don’t know how it all fits together, but it fits together seamlessly and the whole is what’s important.
And we shouldn’t mess with it?
We are part of the ecosystem, but we have a habit of being more destructive than any other animal on the planet.
Is there ever a downside to raising the profile and popularity of an animal, as you have obviously done with the sloths?
There was a survey, a scientific paper that was written about four years ago, which I found particularly inspirational, which stated that the charismatic megafauna [eg tigers, pandas and whales] receive much more funding and scientific research than the non-charismatic species. Lions, for instance, got 500 times more funding for research and conservation than endangered amphibians, which are the most threatened class of animals on the planet. So clearly there’s an imbalance out there, and it doesn’t hurt to raise the profile of an obscure species so that it gets more appreciation, which will only help in terms of its funding and conservation.
If I’ve got it right, unlike a zoo, the whole point of the sanctuary is to get the sloths ready to go back out into the wild.
Sloths live for a very long time, and in the wild they have a surprising wide range. And they’re perfectly adapted to their slow, arboreal lifestyle, but unfortunately millions of years of evolution has not prepared them for roads and power lines, cars and dogs, all of which have a enormously destructive effect on them. You may have seen video of sloths trying to cross the road, which has a kind of dark humour to it, but it is the most painful thing to watch…at the hand of man they do have quite a lot of accidents and the sanctuary is a place where they can be brought and patched up and then released.
What exactly are the evolutionary advantages of being a sloth as there doesn’t seem to be much about them that makes them survivors – is there a secret I’m missing?
If you do surveys in the rainforest of biomass [the total number of organisms in a given area], then sloths make up, in some places, as much as two thirds of the mammalian biomass. So they’re actually doing very well…in most jungles, mammals of that size - and the equivalent would be the jaguarundi, jaguars or the tapir - any medium to large size mammal, is really threatened now, largely because their habitat is being chopped down or their food source is being depleted.
But sloths are doing pretty well, and the reason they are is that they’re incredibly well adapted, and the whole key to the way they live is their diet. Sloths have evolved to consume mildly toxic leaves – rainforest leaves don’t want to be eaten by a herbivore any more than a wildebeest wants to be eaten by the cheetah – and the sloth has evolved to break down these toxins so it can feed on trees that other animals can’t. It takes them a whole month to digest a meal of these leaves, because if they didn’t take things very slowly they’d poison their livers.
The other advantage of moving very slowly is that it’s thought their movements are so slow the sloth slips under the radar of its main predator, the harpy eagle, as it cruises around the tree tops; it simply doesn't get seen.
You say in the book that sloths ‘smell like a tree’, which is the most wonderful, evocative description.
They have no natural body odour and they have this ecosystem in their fur [which means they] do look and smell just like a tree - they’re masters of disguise, stealth ninjas, and you can be walking through the forest and never see a sloth, but they’re there and they’re looking down at you…they’ve basically evolved into a big happy, hairy hammock which hangs upside down in the trees and digests food with a four-chambered stomach. They’re a topsy-turvy animal.
Is there anything that gets them excited?
There’s a myth out there on the Internet that it takes a sloth two days to mate, but that’s totally rubbish, I’ve seen it myself. It’s the only thing they do quickly, and it’s a remarkably swift and surprisingly athletic affair. They’ll mate numerous times over the course of an afternoon, but each session will only last a mere few seconds – but, if you think about it, the reason for that is that it’s a moment when they’re vulnerable and so they’re going to get it over and done with quickly and get back to being obscure.
Coming from a film and TV background, did you find the book production process a bit slothlike?
Do you know what, my experience of doing this book has been one of my most pleasurable work experiences – I can’t think of anything I’ve enjoyed more, actually. It is surprising how slothful it was compared to television, but it can take a year to make a documentary so TV is not necessarily quick either. There’s a lot more freedom than there is in TV.
Are you attached to the Costa Rican sanctuary, do you go back often?
No I don’t, I sort of spread the love around, to be honest; [the Costa Rica sanctuary] had a huge boost from the publicity for the documentary and the book and so now I try and spend time visiting other sloth sanctuaries when I can. I’m hoping in March this year to go to visit the pygmy sloths who live on an island off the coast of Panama…it’s home to one of the strangest and cutest animals on the planet, an island of dwarf sloths. They’re half the size of regular sloths and they graze on algae which has a similar property to Valium, so they don’t just look stoned, they are stoned…an island of stoned, dwarf sloths…
[Laughs] You’re having way too much fun with these creatures!
I’m desperate to go…they are really endangered and the Zoological Society of London, which I am a patron of, are putting a huge effort into trying to protect them because the Panamanian government want to sell the island off to turn into a casino. It’s the only place in the world where these creatures are found, so it’s incredible important that we try and do something to protect them.
Have you now been bitten by the book bug?
I am working on my follow-up, which is actually kid’s fiction, but I’m not going to tell you too much as I haven’t done the deal yet. [I can say] the lead character is a sloth, which may not come as a surprise to some people. But I felt that there was more that I wanted to say, and the bits of The Power of Sloth that I really enjoyed were the more whimsical pieces where I characterised and I really wanted to go further…this will be real life stories with fictional characters.
I do think the sloths have got a very important message for modern day conservation, in that they are a sort of energy-saving totem for the 21st Century. They live a very low-impact life that’s in harmony with the natural world, and I think there’s a lot we can learn from that – and also to just perhaps slow down a little bit ourselves and take stock of what’s around us.