Cute or unsettling? Take your pick

Neil Genzlinger / New York Times News Service /

Published Nov 13, 2013 at 04:00AM

It’s a Saturday morning in autumn, and while other people are outside enjoying the last of the fall foliage or cheering on their kids’ sports teams, you’re sunk down on your couch, watching an Animal Planet program about sloths. Could this picture get any sadder?

It could. Turns out that a substantial portion of this particular episode of the program is specifically about sloths’ toilet habits.

So, yes, you should feel pathetic, but, in your defense, the animals are pretty darned cute. The show is called “Meet the Sloths,” and it tries to apply the formula that worked so well a few years ago for “Meerkat Manor” to the slow, sedentary world of sloths.

The eight-part “Meet the Sloths,” which started Saturday, introduces some of the more than 150 animals at a sanctuary for injured and orphaned sloths in Costa Rica, investing them with humanlike personalities and small dramas. And, if you enjoy having unusual creatures inhabit your television, this could be a good month for you: “Meet the Sloths” is the first part of an accidental animal trifecta that will also give parrots and penguins some TV exposure in the next two weeks. Prepare for an emotional roller coaster that begins at endearing, dips to dismaying and finishes at ridiculous.

The premiere of “Meet the Sloths” focuses on Buttercup, who is said to be the queen of the sanctuary and has held court there for more than 20 years. Part of the episode focuses on efforts to replace the tattered hanging wicker basket in which she spends much of her time. And part of it focuses on research into sloths’ digestive process, which involves having an animal drink red dye, then waiting for the dye to appear in its excretions. Suffice it to say that moving around is not the only thing sloths do very, very slowly.

The show is accompanied by narration that may be too cutesy for its own good. The tone is entirely different tonight in “Parrot Confidential,” an unsettling installment of the PBS series “Nature.”

These animals, too, are lovely to look at and surprisingly complex, but a subspecies of a different animal is making their lives miserable. It’s the subspecies of humans who insist on trying to keep wild, exotic pets.

The program documents the thorny problem of abandoned macaws, cockatoos and similar exotic birds. Like pythons, big cats and other wild animals that have no business being in basements or backyards, they prove to be more trouble or longer-lived than their owners realized. Several sanctuaries that take in unwanted birds are visited in the program; all of them are filled to capacity.

Part of the problem is that these kinds of birds can outlive humans, which creates problems even for conscientious owners.

“She is going to live to be 80 or 90, and I’m 74,” one such owner, Lavanya Michel, says of the cockatoo she has had for 16 years. Those have been 16 loud years: The birds make much more of a racket than many people were expecting.

“I finally got gun-range earphones,” Michel says. “And that doesn’t completely deaden it. You can still hear it. It just doesn’t make your eardrums hurt.”

Many of these species are complex social creatures that do not adapt well to the solitary life of a cage, sometimes substituting a bond with the nearest human for the connection they are programmed to make with other birds.

“People don’t always understand that when a bird forms a bond with you, it’s actually a mate bond,” says Jamie McLeod, who founded a sanctuary in California. And the substitution isn’t always enough for the animal. The program is full of images of birds that have reacted to the stress of a caged life by pulling out their feathers or otherwise injuring themselves.

“When people ask me what is the right size cage for a macaw,” one expert says, summing up the problem, “there is no right size cage for a macaw. It’s 35 square miles.”

A much cheerier look at a different bird comes up Nov. 23 with the Discovery Channel’s “Penguins: Waddle All the Way,” a co-production with the BBC. No cages or sanctuaries here; the program records the antics of three species of penguins in their natural habitats. Penguins have had movie and television moments before, like the hit film “March of the Penguins,” in 2005, but they’re always worth another look. And “Waddle All the Way” has a droll gimmick: cams, cams and more cams.

The film is by John Downer, who is known for finding whimsical ways to deploy cameras, and some of its images come from cameras placed in animatronic penguins, fake penguin eggs or phony rocks. The film may use more footage of the penguin cams than from them, but it’s still a pretty good gag. And the high point of this entertaining program may be when a real penguin seems to take a romantic interest in a fake one.

Beyond that, there is certainly something heartening about the way these poorly designed birds — can’t fly; seem to fall over a lot — persevere through the Antarctic cold or the relentless surf of the Falkland Islands to act out their feeding and mating cycles. They may look comical, but there isn’t a couch potato in the bunch.