In 2023, the New York State Supreme Court ordered the business to stop exhibiting wild animals after local authorities in the Town of Islip charged Sloth Encounters with illegally keeping sloths and kangaroos, as well as operating without proper permits. Despite these federal and local interventions, business as usual continues there.
And that spells trouble for animals. The HSUS investigator witnessed sloths kept in an overcrowded enclosure, conditions which likely sparked a fight between two sloths that broke out on branches above the crowd of customers. A staff member hit the fighting sloths with a spray bottle repeatedly before one animal fell to the floor, nearly falling on a customer holding a third sloth. One sloth was injured, but the operator let the public encounter continue, and then grabbed the injured sloth roughly by the head and neck while the animal tried to fight off his grasp. The investigator also documented the owner of Sloth Encounters encouraging customers holding sloths to drop their arms, leaving sloths to dangle unsupported while clinging to customers as they walked around the enclosure—a practice dangerous to both the animals and customers.
Following the investigation, we filed a complaint with the USDA urging the agency to investigate and revoke the federal license held by the owner of Sloth Encounters. We’re grateful to town authorities for their efforts to enforce local laws. It’s clear, however, that this operation exemplifies a much more troubling pattern that has left countless animals in USDA-regulated facilities at risk of cruelty, suffering and neglect.
There is an opportunity here for a stronger multi-agency approach to animal welfare enforcement. The Better CARE for Animals Act would expand the Department of Justice’s enforcement tools and create a stronger partnership with USDA to better enforce the Animal Welfare Act. Specifically, the law would allow the DOJ better access to evidence in Animal Welfare Act cases and authorize the agency to bring cases in federal court seeking the revocation of licenses, issuance of civil penalties and seizure of animals experiencing harmful treatment in the hands of facilities regulated under the Animal Welfare Act. Currently, the DOJ may request a court to impose injunctions against these facilities, but an expanded toolkit would permit officials there to step in quicker to ensure the protection of animals from abuse, neglect and mistreatment at facilities like Sloth Encounters.
In recent years under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the DOJ has demonstrated a clear commitment to enforcing the Animal Welfare Act, and it has done so in cases involving captive wild animals. In November 2020, the agency filed a complaint against big cat exhibitors Jeffrey and Lauren Lowe (of “Tiger King” notoriety) for Animal Welfare Act and Endangered Species Act violations (United States v. Lowe, et al.). As a result, the federal government was able to seize 68 big cats, including lions and tigers, pursuant to the Endangered Species Act’s civil forfeiture provision. In 2023, a DOJ injunction against Even Keel Exotics—a wild animal dealer in Temperance, Michigan, who had been cited more than 100 times since 2011—resulted in a settlement agreement, the surrender of nearly 150 animals and the revocation of the owner’s license to buy, sell or trade animals regulated under the Animal Welfare Act.
We’ve led the fight to shine the bright light of scrutiny on cruel and squalid captive wildlife display and handling operations and to encourage people to find humane ways to experience and admire wild animals. Still, so long as such operations exist, we must do our best to strengthen the legal framework that protects animals who are suffering in such places. The Better CARE for Animals Act, once passed, will signal a new era in our national commitment to doing so; it’s a rational approach to building effective cooperation between agencies whose remit includes the prevention of cruelty to animals. Urge your legislator to cosponsor the Better CARE for Animals Act.
Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.