Sloth Encounters, which a judge had previously ordered closed, must...

Sloth Encounters, which a judge had previously ordered closed, must “immediately cease” operations that violate Town of Islip code, the same judge said in a ruling Friday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

A Suffolk County Supreme Court judge in a ruling Friday said a Hauppauge sloth exhibition business must “immediately cease” operations that violate Town of Islip code. 

Judge Joseph Santorelli, who issued the preliminary injunction against Sloth Encounters, also denied the business’ motion to dismiss the case, which has been ongoing since September when Santorelli issued a temporary restraining order closing the business.

The business, which is run by federally licensed animal exhibitor Larry Wallach, has advertised in-home sloth visits since the September order. The Hauppauge storefront was open as of March 24, when a Newsday reporter visited the business. Wallach continues to advertise the sale of sloths and other “exotic pets” on his website and social media.

"This is a complex issue; however, the town is committed to make certain the business only operates in strict conformance with town code. Any other state and county codes also must be followed,” Islip spokeswoman Caroline Smith said in a written statement Friday.

Attorney John Zollo, who is representing Sloth Encounters, said Friday his client is in compliance with town code and sloths are not legally considered wild animals in Islip. 

"I know we're complying with the court order," he said, adding the court should "further address" ambiguities in the town's definition of wild animals.

An injunction is "the most powerful tool that a town or a village has to enforce land use ordinances," said Tom McKevitt, a municipal law expert and Nassau County legislator. 

A temporary restraining order is the first step toward a permanent injunction, which may take years to obtain. The restraining order may take effect immediately, but only until the date of the hearing on the preliminary injunction, he said. 

“If the judge grants preliminary injunction, then that business continues to be shut down until you’re able to eventually determine whether a permanent injunction is granted or not,” McKevitt said.

Last month, a motion from the Town of Islip said sloths fall under the town’s legal definition of “wild animals,” and the operation of Sloth Encounters as a pet store is inconsistent with the existing certificate of occupancy.

The town further argued that Wallach has “not even complied with the beginning stages” of filing the necessary paperwork for a new certificate of occupancy, although it said he applied to operate as a “petting zoo” in November, which is "not a permissible use" in the store's zoning district.

John Di Leonardo, president of Humane Long Island, an animal advocacy group that has accused Wallach of exploiting animals for profit, said Friday, "I'm glad that things are trending in the right direction. However, the preliminary injunction is only helpful if Islip enforces it." 

A motion opposing the temporary restraining order and requesting the dismissal of the case was filed on behalf of Sloth Encounters by Zollo in late March. He wrote that Wallach was not aware prior to the lawsuit that his operations as a sloth exhibitor were violating town code. 

The business is operating as a retail pet store, Zollo said, “which is in compliance with the Islip Town Zoning Ordinance,” and has so far taken deposits on, or sold, eight sloths, according to the motion.

If Islip decides Sloth Encounters has ignored court orders, the town may choose to file a motion for contempt to the judge, which can result in fines or jail time, McKevitt said.

With Nicholas Spangler

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