A lawyer for Sloth Encounters, a Hauppauge business that charges $50 per half hour to hold and feed sloths, entered a not guilty plea Wednesday on behalf of the business in a Suffolk District Court to violating four Islip Town ordinances, including one that prohibits possession of wild animals.
Judge Cheryl Helfer adjourned the case to Oct. 26. The brief appearance in 5th District Court in Ronkonkoma comes as the town seeks court orders to close the business on Veterans Memorial Highway.
Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter told Newsday on Tuesday that her office has filed for a permanent injunction in Suffolk County Supreme Court against Sloth Encounters and its landlord. The town is also seeking a temporary restraining order to close the business during the injunction proceeding. That order could be granted in as little as a week, town attorney John DiCioccio said at a Tuesday town board meeting. A hearing for the restraining order is scheduled for Thursday in Riverhead.
Sloth Encounters, formally identified in court records as Slothencounters.com, is owned by Larry Wallach, a federally licensed animal exhibitor. Wallach did not appear in court Wednesday.
“Whatever will be, will be,” he said in a brief phone interview Wednesday. “I got lawyers, and I’ll let them do their job.”
Facing pressure by animal rights advocates who accused Sloth Encounters of exploiting animals for profit, town officials in late August ticketed the business for unauthorized change of use, prohibited use and occupancy of a building without fire marshal approval, in addition to violation of the wild animal prohibition. The tickets carry possible fines ranging from $500 to $4,000 per offense, along with possible jail time.
In a statement Wednesday, Carpenter said, “Today’s court appearance is not the end of the story. We will continue to prosecute this case to ensure that no business operates illegally in the Town of Islip.”
A lawyer for Sloth Encounters, John Zollo, said in an interview after leaving the courthouse that the business was operating with “no risk to the public and no risk to the animals … I’m not sure why the town is so gung-ho on this.”
Zollo said his client had made “every good-faith effort” to comply with the code, filing an application for change of use and finalizing one for change of zone, he said. It was unclear whether sloths met the town’s definition of wild animals, he said.
Zollo said sloths were a far cry from “a cougar or a lion or a rhinoceros” that might create an obvious hazard. The town code’s definition of “wild animal” states it is “an animal of any species which in its natural habitat is wild, dangerous or ferocious.” That section of code, adopted in 1981, includes a lengthy but not comprehensive list of examples: members of the dog and cat families except the common, domesticated varieties; predator birds, venomous snakes and insects, snapping turtles, alligators and iguanas.
It does not mention sloths, sluggish natives of tropical rainforests in Central and South America that spend most of their time sleeping.
John Di Leonardo, president of the animal advocacy group Humane Long Island, who has coordinated protests against Sloth Encounters, has said the sloths, which are exhibited in a former pool supply store, are being kept in unhealthy conditions.