Sloth Encounters, a Hauppauge business that charges $50 per half-hour to hold, feed and pet sloths, lacks a permit and was operating in violation of the Suffolk sanitary code, a county official said.
After an inquiry from Newsday Thursday, county spokeswoman Marykate Guilfoyle said the business, which faced criticism from animal advocates soon after it opened, was inspected and that "the inspection conducted today confirmed that Sloth Encounters meets the definition of a petting zoo."
That's a type of business regulated by the county’s Department of Health Services. But Sloth Encounters never obtained the $220 required permit, she said.
"A violation for operating a petting zoo without a permit was cited" in the inspection on Thursday, Guilfoyle said in an email. "A permit application and fee was submitted today."
Guilfoyle did not say what penalty the violation carried.
A spokesman for Islip, where the business is located, said the town had not gotten any applications for the business but did not say whether any permits were required.
Sloths “are wild animals — these are not pets,” said John Di Leonardo, president of the advocacy group Humane Long Island. “They don’t want some stranger coming in and handling them. … If they’re not in the wild, they should be in sanctuaries.”
Attempts to reach Sloth Encounters' ownership were unsuccessful.
According to state records, slothencounters.com was registered July 11 at the Veterans Memorial Highway address to an East Rockaway man, Larry Wallach, who has lived with animals including a declawed cougar and a wallaby, Newsday has reported.
Wallach could not be reached Thursday, and a man who answered the phone at Sloth Encounters said Wallach owned only the website, not the physical business. He declined to identify the business owners.
Wallach holds an exhibitor license through the U.S. Department of Agriculture that's registered to the Hauppauge address and expired in June, according to an agency database.
Since 2014, agency inspectors have cited him for 13 noncritical items and one critical “noncompliant” item involving a tiger cub with a broken foot. The other items include, in 2021, a sloth enclosure with an exposed light and humidifier “which could injure the animal by burning, broken glass, or electrical shock.”
A USDA spokesman did not comment.
Wallach once held state licenses through the Department of Environmental Conservation to exhibit endangered or dangerous animals, but in 2016 he admitted violating his license by permitting prohibited contact between a tiger cub and the public, according to a DEC spokesman. In 2020, DEC cited him again for permitting contact between a tiger cub and the public.
The DEC does not regulate sloths, the spokesman said.
Suffolk SPCA chief Roy Gross said New York was one of the few states where it is legal to own a sloth without a license, and that his agency has had no complaints about animal mistreatment at the business.
Gross said he was skeptical of most forms of animal exhibition and any form of promotion that might encourage people to keep sloths as pets.
“They cost $6,000 to $10,000 to buy and they live 30 years in captivity," he said. " … They don’t like to be handled.”
Sloth Encounters, located in a former pool supplies store, says on its website that its sloths live in a habitat similar to the “jungles of Costa Rica” and that visitors can hold “sloth babies.”
Dan Ashe, CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a trade group, said that while some organization members do offer sloth “experiences” that let visitors approach the animals, “you certainly can’t handle them." Member zoos, in general, would not permit visitors to handle baby animals, he said, because of the risk of infection and because it removes them from their mothers.
A captive animal should “be in its own environment” and be able to engage or withdraw from activity, he said. But sloths, because they are “slow moving, pretty relaxed animals, are probably vulnerable to that kind of exploitation,” he added.