A Suffolk County Supreme Court judge on Thursday said a Hauppauge sloth exhibition business must close pending further orders from the court.
Judge Joseph Santorelli, ruling from Riverhead, scheduled an Oct. 6 hearing for Sloth Encounters and its landlord to show cause why the business should not be permanently enjoined from operating. Lawyers for Islip Town had asked for a temporary restraining order closing the business, calling it an immediate and present danger to the public” in a filing.
“Islip is pleased that the Judge ruled in our favor, to ensure that no business operates illegally in the Town of Islip. This ruling sends the right message to all those that abide by the law,” Supervisor Angie Carpenter said in a statement.
John Zollo, a lawyer for Sloth Encounters and its landlord, said: “I’m disappointed but I do understand why the judge felt constrained to sign the restraining order. My client intends to continue pursuing the rezoning of the property.”
Larry Wallach, the federally licensed animal exhibitor who operates Sloth Encounters, wrote in a text message that “we will be back in court soon.”
The business on Veterans Memorial Highway sells 30-minute holding and feeding sessions with its sloths for $50.
Lawyers for the town said Sloth Encounters and its landlord are violating Islip’s zoning and fire code, and that the business is violating a town ordinance that forbids possession of wild animals.
“He started operating an illegal business, and now he’s seeking permission,” Islip Deputy Town Attorney Mike Walsh told Santorelli at the hearing, arguing that allowing the business to stay open would send the wrong message.
Zollo, who also represented Sloth Encounters’ landlord, a limited liability company whose principal is Raymond Locrotondo, according to court records, said in court that Wallach was working to remedy the violations. Wallach, he said, “didn’t really think” before investing $375,000 to open a business without necessary permits. “He loves the animals” and runs programs for students and autistic children, Zollo said.
Zollo conceded that Sloth Encounters, in a former pool supply store, lacked proper permitting but said “it affects nobody.” The business sits on a commercial thoroughfare, and its nearest neighbor is an ice-cream shop.
John Di Leonardo, president of Humane Long Island, an animal advocacy group that has accused Wallach of exploiting animals for profit, said group members were “thrilled that relief will soon be underway not only for the town, but also for the suffering sloths. We will continue our campaign until this cruel and illegal business is shuttered permanently.”
Zollo, in court, described Di Leonardo as a “fringe” figure who had attempted to sway Islip Town officials.