Pulaski Street Intermediate School teacher Stacy Hubbard says her fifth-graders are taking action to save endangered sloths by writing letters in support of a bill to protect the animals. Credit: Barry Sloan

Yes, John DiLeonardo has seen a sloth up close. And no, he hasn’t touched one.

Sloths are wild animals, the anthrozoologist told fifth-grade students in Riverhead on Friday. But DiLeonardo, the executive director of Humane Long Island, also acknowledged that state law doesn't agree  — at least for now. 

DiLeonardo visited Pulaski Street Intermediate School to help students who became engrossed in a recent local controversy about sloths learn more about both animal welfare and civic engagement.

He explained two pieces of potential legislation, one that would expand New York’s legal definition of a wild animal and another that would ban traveling shows featuring wild and exotic animals in Suffolk County. 

“Humane education is a mandate in New York State, but I think it’s woefully under-enforced,” DiLeonardo told Newsday later.

Humane education is the teaching of compassion and empathy for all living beings and respect for their habitats, according to the Animal Welfare Institute, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

DiLeonardo called it "very exciting" to see a schoolteacher helping her students "learn about the legislative process and animal welfare all at the same time."

He was just one of the speakers that fifth-grade teacher Stacy Hubbard invited to her class Friday.

She and her students recently decided to write letters supporting the Suffolk County bill that would ban shows with wild animals after following recent news coverage about Hauppauge-based Sloth Encounters, which animal rights advocates — including DiLeonardo — have accused of exploiting animals.

A Suffolk County Supreme Court judge granted a temporary restraining order in September that forced Sloth Encounters to temporarily shutter its business. Islip Town, which sought the order, is seeking a permanent injunction.

The Veterans Memorial Highway business sold 30-minute holding and feeding sessions with its sloths for $50. Larry Wallach, a federally licensed animal exhibitor, operated Sloth Encounters without the proper zoning and permits. Since the court order, Sloth Encounters has advertised in-home sloth visits.

Wallach told Newsday on Friday his business is now selling sloths that were born in captivity as pets and rebuted arguments that sloths don't like people touching them. 

Wallach added that his work is educational and he doesn't believe the county bill will pass.

Hubbard told Newsday on Friday that her class uses a scholastic magazine for elementary school students called "StoryWorks" as part of the reading and writing program and it had included content on sloths.

"We were reading about sloths and one of the students mentioned he had been to Sloth Encounters,” Hubbard explained.

She had heard of the business' legal issues, so she and her students began watching local TV reports on the issue and the fifth-graders became "very emotional about it," according to the teacher.

Hubbard said that gave her an idea for an “authentic teaching opportunity” for her English Language Arts, Social Studies and Civic Readiness Standards class, and she sought guest speakers.

Suffolk County Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) was also one of those guests Friday. He answered questions about the legislative process and encouraged students to get involved with local government. 

Students told Newsday after Friday's lesson they had learned more about how to treat wild animals. They also said they’d learned anyone can make a difference.

“You can be any age to make the world a better place,” said Laila Huey, 10.

Yes, John DiLeonardo has seen a sloth up close. And no, he hasn’t touched one.

Sloths are wild animals, the anthrozoologist told fifth-grade students in Riverhead on Friday. But DiLeonardo, the executive director of Humane Long Island, also acknowledged that state law doesn't agree  — at least for now. 

DiLeonardo visited Pulaski Street Intermediate School to help students who became engrossed in a recent local controversy about sloths learn more about both animal welfare and civic engagement.

He explained two pieces of potential legislation, one that would expand New York’s legal definition of a wild animal and another that would ban traveling shows featuring wild and exotic animals in Suffolk County. 

“Humane education is a mandate in New York State, but I think it’s woefully under-enforced,” DiLeonardo told Newsday later.

Humane education is the teaching of compassion and empathy for all living beings and respect for their habitats, according to the Animal Welfare Institute, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

DiLeonardo called it "very exciting" to see a schoolteacher helping her students "learn about the legislative process and animal welfare all at the same time."

He was just one of the speakers that fifth-grade teacher Stacy Hubbard invited to her class Friday.

She and her students recently decided to write letters supporting the Suffolk County bill that would ban shows with wild animals after following recent news coverage about Hauppauge-based Sloth Encounters, which animal rights advocates — including DiLeonardo — have accused of exploiting animals.

A Suffolk County Supreme Court judge granted a temporary restraining order in September that forced Sloth Encounters to temporarily shutter its business. Islip Town, which sought the order, is seeking a permanent injunction.

The Veterans Memorial Highway business sold 30-minute holding and feeding sessions with its sloths for $50. Larry Wallach, a federally licensed animal exhibitor, operated Sloth Encounters without the proper zoning and permits. Since the court order, Sloth Encounters has advertised in-home sloth visits.

Wallach told Newsday on Friday his business is now selling sloths that were born in captivity as pets and rebuted arguments that sloths don't like people touching them. 

Wallach added that his work is educational and he doesn't believe the county bill will pass.

Hubbard told Newsday on Friday that her class uses a scholastic magazine for elementary school students called "StoryWorks" as part of the reading and writing program and it had included content on sloths.

"We were reading about sloths and one of the students mentioned he had been to Sloth Encounters,” Hubbard explained.

She had heard of the business' legal issues, so she and her students began watching local TV reports on the issue and the fifth-graders became "very emotional about it," according to the teacher.

Hubbard said that gave her an idea for an “authentic teaching opportunity” for her English Language Arts, Social Studies and Civic Readiness Standards class, and she sought guest speakers.

Suffolk County Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) was also one of those guests Friday. He answered questions about the legislative process and encouraged students to get involved with local government. 

Students told Newsday after Friday's lesson they had learned more about how to treat wild animals. They also said they’d learned anyone can make a difference.

“You can be any age to make the world a better place,” said Laila Huey, 10.

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