The owner of the Hauppauge-based sloth exhibition business who has continued to advertise sloths and other exotic pets despite a March court order is now facing Islip Town and state charges that could result in fines or jail time.
On May 31, Larry Wallach is expected to be arraigned in Fifth District Court in Islip on a criminal charge of selling wild animals. Wallach's business, Sloth Encounters, also faces a motion for contempt for allegedly ignoring the March court order from Suffolk County Supreme Court Judge Joseph Santorelli. He is scheduled to appear in Suffolk County Supreme Court in Central Islip on June 1 on that charge.
On May 17, Wallach was arraigned in Suffolk County First District Court in Central Islip after the state Department of Environmental Conservation charged him with transporting and selling a lizard species that's illegal in New York. The charge, a violation, could result in jail time, if Wallach is convicted.
Wallach started advertising his Veterans Memorial Highway business in July, charging $50 an hour to hold, feed and pet sloths, according to his website. He now advertises the sale of kangaroos and other exotic animals on the site. After court orders to shut down his business, Wallach began advertising home visits with sloths, which he said he's done for years.
WHAT TO KNOW
- On May 31, Sloth Encounters owner Larry Wallach is due to be arraigned in Islip's Fifth District Court for the alleged sale of wild animals.
- Islip has filed a motion for contempt in an ongoing court case against Sloth Encounters, which has continued operating despite court orders to shut down.
- In a third case, the Suffolk County District Attorney's office is seeking 15 days jail time for Wallach for allegedly possessing and offering for sale three Nile monitor lizards.
The Suffolk County Health Department began an investigation in April after receiving a complaint about an alleged biting incident at Sloth Encounters. The department was unable to substantiate the complaint, and no violations were cited, a spokeswoman said. The department has conducted no other recent investigations into the operations of the business, the spokeswoman added.
The legal definition of a wild animal has been among the focal points in the Islip Town case. Wallach has insisted sloths are not legally considered wild animals in Islip, an interpretation contested by the town’s attorneys.
"The consistency is lacking, because there are pet stores throughout the Town of Islip, throughout the county of Suffolk, doing exactly what Larry does. Nobody's bothering them," John Zollo, an attorney representing Wallach, said Wednesday.
Wallach has a animal exhibitor license with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is up for renewal on June 14.
As the court cases unfold over the next few weeks, here are five things you should know:
Is it legal to own a sloth in New York?
Suffolk SPCA chief Roy Gross said Tuesday that New York is 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 Sloth Encounters. He added, though, that even if certain animals are legal to own, they might not be "the best pets to have."
The SPCA will pursue cases where someone possesses illegal animals, he said, or investigate allegations of abuse or neglect.
What are the Islip Town code violations?
Islip Town code violations against Sloth Encounters run the gamut from a zoning issue for change of use without a permit and lack of fire extinguishers to a lack of carbon monoxide detectors and electrical hazards. The town also ticketed the business in August for possession of wild animals.
To enforce the violations, Islip Town attorneys in September began the process of seeking a permanent injunction. Santorelli granted a temporary restraining order on Sept. 15 that restricted Sloth Encounters from "publicly exhibiting, possessing or harboring wild animals in any location within the Town of Islip," according to court documents.
A temporary restraining order is the first step toward a permanent injunction, which may take years to obtain. However, the restraining order may take effect immediately, said Tom McKevitt, a municipal law expert and Nassau County legislator.
A municipality might choose to request a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction while the court decides whether to permanently prohibit the defendant “from doing this type of activity,” McKevitt said.
In March, Santorelli upgraded the restraining order to a preliminary injunction.
Zollo said Wednesday that Wallach has resolved all town code violations except the zoning issue, which he's filed an application to address.
Why is Islip seeking motion for contempt?
The Town of Islip filed a motion for contempt in April, arguing that inspections found Sloth Encounters had continued to harbor wild animals in defiance of the preliminary injunction.
In court records, town attorneys said the business has displayed "blatant disobedience and unwillingness to comply with court order."
If Santorelli grants the motion, Wallach may face fines or jail time.
What are the state DEC charges?
Wallach was arraigned May 17 for the alleged "possession without a permit of three Nile monitor lizards, which are illegal to possess in New York," said Tania Lopez, a spokeswoman for the Suffolk County District Attorney's office. He also allegedly offered "these dangerous lizards for sale to the public at his business Sloth Encounters."
The district attorney's office is seeking the maximum penalty allowed by law, which is 15 days jail time, and is prepared to go to trial. The case was adjourned to June 14.
Wallach said after the arraignment he wasn’t aware the Nile monitors were illegal in the state until he was told by a DEC inspector. He said he contacted his distributor to take them back.
What legislation has been inspired by Sloth Encounters?
Suffolk lawmakers in November proposed a bipartisan bill that would ban traveling shows featuring wild and exotic animals to prevent mistreatment or the spreading of disease. The bill defines a wild animal as one that does not belong to one of seven domesticated species: dogs, cats, cows, goats, horses, pigs or sheep.
At the state level, a bill introduced in April would expand the legal definition of wild animals to include sloths, kangaroos and other species, and limit their sale. The bill also adds a definition for “exotic" animals as wild animals with origins on a different continent. The bill would further prohibit people from selling, harboring or owning exotic animals in New York.
What are sloths?
- Sloths are tree-dwelling mammals that live in the rainforest canopies of Central and South America, according to The Sloth Conservation Foundation.
They are the slowest moving mammals on Earth. At top speed, a sloth can only move 1.5 miles per hour, the foundation says.
There are multiple moth, algae and fungi species that are only found in sloth fur, which is adapted to allow the sloth to be a mini ecosystem, according to the foundation.