Suffolk County officials on Monday announced legislation to restrict the use of exotic animals in traveling performances. Credit: Anthony Florio

Suffolk County lawmakers and animal welfare activists hope to pass a law that would ban traveling shows featuring wild and exotic animals to prevent mistreatment or the spreading of disease.

Members of the legislature, speaking during a news conference Monday, said wild and exotic animals shouldn’t be transported for entertainment.

“We're here not only about the safety of animals, we are here about the safety of our children,” said Legis. Jason Richberg (D-West Babylon), minority leader of the legislature, who along with Legis. Trish Bergin (R-East Islip), sponsored the bipartisan bill.

Legislators said the impetus for the bill was Hauppauge-based Sloth Encounters, which animals rights advocates have accused of exploiting animals, announcing on social media that it was offering home visits. The sloth exhibition business' store on Veterans Memorial Highway has been closed since September pending the outcome of a court case with Islip Town. It is due back in court Dec. 7.

John Di Leonardo, president of Humane Long Island, an animal advocacy group that has been publicly critical of the Sloth Encounters, praised the bill.

“This is to prevent wild animals from being hauled from place to place, spreading disease and harassing them in unknown places,” he said.

Sloth Encounter operator Larry Wallach, who denies mistreating sloths, said he thinks the law will be difficult to enforce. He also believes his permits from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will supersede local restrictions and allow him to host traveling shows.

“I don’t know how anyone is going to keep up with it,” Wallach said of the proposed law. “It’s going to be ridiculous. It’s a stupid law.”

The proposed law defines a wild animal as one that does not belong to one of seven domesticated species: dogs, cats, cows, goats, horses, pigs or sheep.

It would not apply to properly accredited zoos, aquariums, universities, research facilities or environment educational programs. The law also does not apply to film or television productions using animals but closed to the public.

Those who violate the proposed law would face a fine of up to $2,500 per day of offense.

Nick Jacinto, who hosts educational wildlife shows featuring a fennec fox, Eurasian eagle-owls and more under the name Nature Nick, launched a change.org petition against the proposed law.

“Kids really seem to benefit from an up close and personal encounter [with an animal],” he said. “These are concepts that can’t be learned in a textbook.”

Jacinto said his animals are regularly inspected by federal and state regulators to ensure they are healthy and he doesn’t exhibit animals over 15 pounds for safety reasons. It is not clear if the ban would apply to his business.

The legislature is expected to vote on the bill during its Dec. 6 meeting. County Executive Steve Bellone is reviewing the legislation but has not said if he will sign it, according to spokeswoman Nicole Russo.

New York in 2017 passed the Elephant Protection Act, which bans the use of elephants in entertainment acts like circuses and carnivals. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus plans to bring back its show, which was shuttered in 2017 due in part to pressure from animal welfare activists, with all human performers in 2023.

“Thankfully we've evolved in society to recognize the importance of allowing animals to exist in their natural state,” said Legis. Leslie Kennedy (R-Smithtown). 

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