Business & Tech

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says it has evidence Sloth Encounters violated two laws in January.

Posted Fri, Jun 7, 2024 at 5:05 pm ET

Sloth Encounters of Hauppauge was warned that the store was accused of violating two federal laws, the United States Department of Agriculture announced. The above photo shows a garage where a sloth is allegedly housed, according to USDA officials. (John LoPinto)

HAUPPAUGE, NY — Sloth Encounters of Hauppauge and its owner, Larry Wallach, were warned that the store was accused of violating two federal laws, the United States Department of Agriculture announced in an official notice of alleged violation issued on May 9.

The warning claims that Wallach and Sloth Encounters violated two laws: animals housed in the same primary enclosure must be properly separated (those animals in the same primary enclosure must be compatible); and animals being improperly handled during public exhibition. “During public exhibition, any animal must be handled so there is minimal risk of harm to the animal and to the public, with sufficient distance and/or barriers between the animal and the general viewing public so as to assure the safety of animals and the public,” the USDA wrote.

Both violations took place on January 30, according to the USDA.

The USDA filing comes in response to an undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States where sloths were allegedly being hit and grabbed by Sloth Encounters staff, the society claimed.

An official warning is an escalation of enforcement by the federal agency that enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act.

Wallach did not immediately respond to Patch’s request for comment.

An exposed light fixture inside a sloth enclosure, USDA officials said. (Credit: John LoPinto)

The May 9 warning was released by the USDA this week, referencing citations issued to Wallach on Jan. 30 in response to a complaint submitted by the Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society Legislative Fund.

Since the undercover investigation, the Town of Islip forced Sloth Encounters to shut down and vacate.

“The current whereabouts of Wallach’s sloths and other animals is not publicly known,” the Humane Society of the United States wrote. “However, despite these and other egregious violations of federal animal welfare law — including being cited for keeping sloths in his dangerous garage — he remains licensed by the USDA and continues to haul sloths to people’s homes for public handling.”

Laura Hagen, director of captive wildlife at the Humane Society of the United States, received the USDA warning this week.

“Career animal exploiter Larry Wallach was recently hit with an official warning from the USDA resulting from our undercover investigation at his Sloth Encounters business, including shocking footage of animals being physically abused by staff during public handling,” Hagen accused in a statement. “While we appreciate this step from the USDA, it’s simply not enough. We remain concerned about the welfare of Wallach’s animals, including sloths that he continues to peddle for profit in encounters at people’s homes.”

Patch could not immediately confirm incidents where Wallach brought the sloths to private homes.

Hagen said the public needs to urge their elected officials to support the Better CARE for Animals Act, which would give the Department of Justice tools to “help enforce the Animal Welfare Act to end this kind of cruelty before it is too late.”

The Sloth Encounters website is listed as under construction while the overhead sign was removed from the storefront, said John Di Leonardo, an anthrozoologist and executive director of Humane Long Island. Di Leonardo previously said the sign’s removal signals the “beginning of the end” for Sloth Encounters, a business owned by Larry Wallach where people could pay $50 to pet, feed and hold sloths.

In February, the Town of Islip requested the Suffolk County Supreme Court hold Wallach, owner of Sloth Encounters of Hauppauge, in criminal contempt, according to court documents filed by the town.

The township said Wallach “should be jailed,” claiming he violated a court order “a number of times,” a town spokeswoman previously told Patch. Wallach violated a court order barring him from operating Sloth Encounters as a “pet store or petting zoo” unless he obtained the necessary approvals from the Town of Islip, the town claimed.

The town also requested the court grant it the authority to seize animals in Sloth Encounters.

A sloth enclosure covered with a tarp, USDA officials said. (Credit: John LoPinto)

Sloth Encounters was found guilty of civil contempt of court, the Suffolk County Supreme Court decided on July 11, 2023, documents show. The business was ordered to temporarily close or Wallach would have to pay $250 a day, according to filings.

The business was ordered to stop operating as a “petting zoo” in a Suffolk County Supreme Court decision in March 2023, records show, but the business was found to continue violating Islip Town Code, the court ruled. The Town of Islip is the sole plaintiff against the business.

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

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

Wallach, in January, said the “only thing that is true” about the Humane Society of the United States’ investigation is that the two male sloths wanted to have a fight.

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

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.

Wallach previously told Patch he fired the staff member and said he has never been charged with animal cruelty.

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

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

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

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