Larry Wallach’s Long Island–based sloth business, Sloth Encounters, charges interested parties $50 per half-hour to encounter his sloths — “Feeding them, petting them, and even holding our sloth babies!” The company’s website claims its two-room storefront across from Carvel in Hauppauge is a very close environmental approximation to “the jungles of Costa Rica” and notes that should you wish to buy a sloth, your admission fee will go toward your purchase. For months, local animal rights activists, perhaps because storefronts across from a Carvel in Hauppauge are not a native habitat of the sloth, have been fighting to shut the business down. Humane Long Island president John Di Leonardo, Wallach’s main foil, has led the campaign. And on Monday, according to NBC, the pair got into a shoving match over it. “This is a violent person who abuses animals,” Di Leonardo said amid the light jostling outside Wallach’s storefront. Wallach responded, “Tell me how I abuse an animal! Tell me.”
The sloth ordeal started over the summer, when Sloth Encounters first opened on Veterans Memorial Highway, branding itself as part educational exercise and part petting zoo. “This isn’t a zoological park,” Di Leonardo said at the time. “It’s literally an old pool store that he blacked out the windows and put some fake plants inside.” By August, at the urging of animal rights groups, the town of Islip had charged Wallach’s business with a number of code violations — including a lack of fire extinguishers and possession of wild animals. (There were claims that Wallach’s sloths had bitten people, which Wallach told ABC was “just part of having animals.”) While Wallach says he brought the space up to fire code and was filing a change-of-use application to address these apparent violations, by September, the Suffolk County Supreme Court had granted the town a temporary restraining order to shut the business down. Undeterred, Sloth Encounters began advertising home visits on Instagram: “Because the courts ruling had NOTHING to do with the health and safety of our sloths and was strictly just a zoning Issue within the town of Islip, SLOTH ENCOUNTERS CAN COME TO YOU!” Dueling Change.org petitions — one in support of Sloth Encounters, one against — began circulating. “Too many miserable people are crying for no reason to ruin Sloth Encounters,” one person wrote on the pro–Sloth Encounters petition. (As the Long Island Herald reported, Wallach, who has a federal animal-exhibitor license, has a history with exotic animals and has been cited in the past by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for violations including handling a tiger in an inhumane manner.)
Monday’s almost fistfight happened after a press conference in which Suffolk County officials announced a proposed ban on the use of exotic animals in traveling performances. Apparently, the county has something of an exotic-animals problem. “We’ve had allegations of snakes and crocodiles and all sorts of other animals in this county being taken to county parks and for parties, and we want to make sure that that’s not allowed,” a Suffolk County legislator said during the announcement. The bill’s goal, according to Humane LI, is “to stop monkeys from being strapped to dogs and to stop sensitive sloths from being hauled to children’s birthday parties.” Wallach, who has previously said that his sloths are “happy” and everyone at Sloth Encounters is “happy,” said he would challenge the bill if approved.