LI's Sloth Encounters Accused Of Abuse After Undercover Investigation

HAUPPAUGE, NY — The Humane Society of the United States conducted an undercover investigation into Sloth Encounters in Hauppauge — and what they found led to an outcry for change.

An investigator said they captured footage of sloths kept in crowded conditions, sloths fighting with one another, a staff member hitting a sloth, and owner Larry Wallach allegedly grabbing a sloth’s head and neck.

Sloth Encounters, located at 551 Veterans Memorial Highway, is a business where people can pay $50 to pet, feed and hold sloths.

Interested in local real estate?Subscribe to Patch's new newsletter to be the first to know about open houses, new listings and more.

“Sloths should never be used in public interactions,” The Humane Society of the United States wrote in a news release. “They are quiet, reclusive animals and being handled by — or even close to — people can cause a sloth’s blood pressure to rise. Sloths are also nocturnal animals whose natural sleep cycle is disrupted by public handling. While sloths may appear compliant while being petted, they respond to fear by holding still and may actually be terrified.”

Wallach said the “only thing that is true” about the investigation is that the two male sloths wanted to have a fight.

Interested in local real estate?Subscribe to Patch's new newsletter to be the first to know about open houses, new listings and more.

“The fact is the place is clean the sloths have plenty of room,” Wallach told Patch. “And are very well taken care of.”

The Humane Society of the United States uploaded the video footage its investigator said they took inside Sloth Encounters to YouTube and social media.

The video has more than 8,000 likes on The Humane Society of the United States’s Instagram page and more than 1,700 comments after it was posted on Monday morning. One commenter called the video “gut wrenching,” while many others called for Sloth Encounters’ shutdown.

Sloth Encounters was converted from a former pool supplies store and houses seven sloths, according to The Humane Society.

“The owner of this appalling facility shows no regard for the health and wellbeing of animals or public safety,” Brian Shapiro, New York state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said in a news release. “His numerous animal welfare violations warrant shutting this place down and never allowing him to have animals in his care. Our investigator documented how deplorable this operation is and the extent of abuse for profit. Sloths are shy, nocturnal, tree-dwelling animals uniquely unsuited for public interactions, yet they are being subjected to stressful handling by strangers almost daily. This is a sloth’s worst nightmare.”

An investigator from the Humane Society of the United States went to Sloth Encounters undercover as a paying customer on Nov. 4, the society wrote.

The investigator said a staff member sprayed and then hit two sloths with a spray bottle “more than 20 times,” causing one sloth to fall from a branch onto the floor. The sloth narrowly missed falling on a customer who was holding another sloth, the society said.

When two sloths were fighting, a staff member told customers, “I told you, ‘Watch them fight,’ did I not? I said, ‘wait for a fight,'” video footage provided by the society shows, the organization said.

“The employee that tried to separate the two males was removed because in her moment of trying to separate the boys, she sprayed them with water and then tried to hit their nose with the water bottle, which is made of a tight rubber,” Wallach said. “But at no time was that OK with me. So she was removed. The sloths were fine and the people were fine. When sloths fight the best thing is to turn on a vacuum. That does the trick to separate and time out.”

Wallach said he fired the staff member.

Patch also reached out to Wallach’s attorney, John Zollo. He did not immediately respond to a message left at his Smithtown law office or email to his firm.

The Humane Society of the United States is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. It describes itself as the “nation’s most effective animal protection and animal welfare organization working to end suffering for all animals.”

Fighting among sloths can be caused by overcrowding, close proximity between the animals, inability to escape from other animals, and stress from being unable to escape from unwanted interactions with the public, the society stated.

Up to 20 customers at a time could interact with the sloths, the nonprofit said. The crowding can result in “acute and chronic distress and expose the animals to dangerous pathogens and parasites,” the society stated.

Sloths were fed an “unhealthy diet that can cause poor health and premature death” instead of the whole-leaf food sources necessary for them to maintain proper health, the society said.

Wallach also offered the investigator close encounters with a solitary kangaroo and two capybaras, as well as a solitary cockatoo that was “desperate for attention,” the society stated.

“The animals are housed in cramped, barren cages in the busy storefront and the capybaras had a metal tub collecting an excessive amount of feces,” the society wrote.

The Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society Legislative Fund reported the findings of the investigation to the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service and called on the agency to terminate Wallach’s Animal Welfare Act license and investigate Sloth Encounters for alleged AWA violations.

The letter to the USDA was published Dec. 14, citing “physical abuse” of sloths; allowing the public to handle sloths; capybaras and a kangaroo in a manner that “risks harm to the animals or the public,” “inappropriate” feeding of sloths; and a lack of “suitable housing” for the animals.

A spokesman for APHIS’ Animal Care program said the agency is reviewing the concerns presented by The Humane Society of the United States and informed the society. The department’s standard process, the spokesman said, is to review the concerns for “approximately 30-60 days.”

In 2023, the New York Supreme Court ordered Wallach to stop exhibiting animals and operating as a pet store. and the business’s landlord, 777 Chris’s Way, LLC, were found guilty of civil contempt of court in July, the court ruled.

Wallach ran the store as a petting zoo under the “pretense that it is a pet store,” the court stated in its decision, which violated Islip Town Code.

Wallach testified he sold snakes, lizards, hamsters, chinchillas, mice, rats, pet supplies, leashes, dog food, cat food and “anything to do with a legitimate pet shop.” He also said he sold sloths, kangaroos and tortoises, court documents show. The Sloth Encounters website previously advertised the sale of snakes, lizards, birds, turtles, frogs, sloths, kangaroos and capybaras.

Fire Marshall Daniel Petrarca, called as a witness by the Town of Islip, testified that sloths are considered “wild animals” by the township because they are not native to North America. Pet sloths and kangaroos are legal in New York.

Sloth Encounters also advertises home visits with its animals. “We do parties, large gatherings and even small gatherings,” Sloth Encounters wrote on its Instagram page.

The Town of Islip has been “actively prosecuting” Sloth Encounters and Wallach since the “day that this issue was brought to our attention,” a town spokesperson said.

“We share in the outrage of the community regarding the inhumane treatment of these animals, and remain steadfast in our commitment to seeking the enforcement of any and all penalties permissible under the Town’s jurisdiction,” the spokesperson said. “We will be returning to court once again, and will not waver in our efforts to see Mr. Wallach held accountable for these actions.”

Gillian Lyons, director of regulatory affairs for the Humane Society Legislative Fund, said the United States’s animal welfare laws need to be enforced and strengthened.

“We simply cannot allow facilities like Sloth Encounters, with a long history of Animal Welfare Act violations, to continue placing animals in harm’s way for the sake of a few dollars,” Lyons said. “We cannot turn a blind eye to mistreatment. The USDA must collaborate with the Department of Justice and take action against this facility.”

Lyons said the U.S. Congress should pass the Better CARE for Animals Act, which will provide the Department Of Justice with additional tools to “effectively enforce the law and rescue suffering animals.”

Jay Pratte, an animal behavior and welfare expert, watched the Humane Society of the United States video and provided a statement to the society.

“Repeated exposure to overpopulated conditions, conflict with other animals and an inability to evade contact or conflict with humans or other animals, are all factors likely contributing to chronic psychological distress,” Pratte said.

In a 2013 consent decision and order, Wallach’s AWA license was suspended for six months by the U.S. Department of Agriculture because of animal care violations.

John Di Leonardo, an anthrozoologist and executive director of Humane Long Island, said Sloth Encounters “subjects vulnerable baby animals to grabbing hands, noisy crowds, and ramshackle cages” inside a store that was zoned for pool supplies.

“Wallach’s reign of terror on animals ranging from sloths and tiger cubs to kangaroos and capybaras has been going on for decades,” Di Leonardo said. “Authorities need to stop moving at a sloth’s place and shut down this heartless operation once and for all.”

According to the Humane Society of the United States, nearly 130 facilities in the U.S. offer close encounters with sloths. On average, 140 sloths are being captured in the wild and imported into the U.S. annually to feed the demand for captive sloths, according to federal data, the society said.

“Sloths, lemurs, otters, kangaroos and wallabies are among the latest animals who are being exploited by roughly 200 U.S. facilities that offer wildlife photos with these species,” the society wrote. “Every ticket purchased for a wild animal encounter funds a horrific industry.”

In 2022, dueling petitions have been created around Sloth Encounters, with one advocating for the business and the other pushing for its shutdown.

Get more local news delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for free Patch newsletters and alerts.

Click Here: Brisbane Broncos Team Jersey

0 thoughts on “LI's Sloth Encounters Accused Of Abuse After Undercover Investigation”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *