NEW YORK—The Humane Society of the United States released the findings of a recent undercover investigation at Sloth Encounters in Hauppauge, New York, owned by Larry Wallach. The investigator captured disturbing footage of staff hitting sloths, stressed sloths kept in crowded conditions, sloths fighting with one another and a wounded sloth struggling when Wallach roughly grabbed his head and neck. 

Sloths should never be used in public interactions. They are quiet, reclusive animals and being handled by—or even close to—people can cause a sloth’s blood pressure to rise. Sloths are also nocturnal animals whose natural sleep cycle is disrupted by public handling. While sloths may appear compliant while being petted, they respond to fear by holding still and may actually be terrified.

Wallach, who previously exhibited animals at his home or other locations, has a long history of federal Animal Welfare Act violations. He converted a former pool supplies store into a roadside petting zoo in 2022, where the public can pay $50 to spend half an hour holding, feeding and petting several of his seven sloths. Between 2010 and 2023, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited Wallach 28 times for AWA violations, including causing sloths trauma and stress, unsafe handling that led to a member of the public being injured by a sloth, keeping animals in infested and cluttered conditions and providing false information to inspectors. In a 2013 consent decision and order, Wallach’s AWA license was suspended for six months for a number of violations relating to animal care.

Brian Shapiro, New York state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said, “The owner of this appalling facility shows no regard for the health and wellbeing of animals or public safety. His numerous animal welfare violations warrant shutting this place down and never allowing him to have animals in his care. Our investigator documented how deplorable this operation is and the extent of abuse for profit. Sloths are shy, nocturnal, tree-dwelling animals uniquely unsuited for public interactions, yet they are being subjected to stressful handling by strangers almost daily. This is a sloth’s worst nightmare.”

Among the findings of the investigation:

  • A staff member sprayed and then hit two sloths with a spray bottle more than 20 times, causing one sloth to fall from a branch onto the floor. The sloth narrowly missed falling on a customer who was holding another sloth.
  • When two sloths were fighting, staff appeared to be well aware that the sloths had a history of fighting behavior, telling customers “I told you’d watch them fight ... I said, ‘wait for a fight,’” and “Eddie fights with everybody ... we call him ‘the bully.’” Fighting amongst captive sloths can be caused by overcrowding, close proximity between the animals, inability to escape from other animals, and stress from being unable to escape from unwanted interactions with the public.
  • Wallach allowed unsafe public handling of juvenile and adult sloths and encouraged the public to rub the stomach of a pregnant sloth, who was cornered in a crate and unable to escape from customers.
  • Up to 20 customers at a time, along with staff members, are allowed to invade the sloths’ undersized enclosure, which can result in acute and chronic distress and expose the animals to dangerous pathogens and parasites.
  • Lacking leaves and fiber from whole-leaf sources necessary to maintain proper gastrointestinal and overall health, the sloths were fed an unhealthy diet that can cause poor health and premature death.
  • Wallach also offered close encounters with a solitary kangaroo and two capybaras as well as a solitary cockatoo who was desperate for attention. The animals are housed in cramped, barren cages in the busy storefront and the capybaras had a metal tub collecting an excessive amount of feces.

The Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society Legislative Fund reported the findings of the investigation to the USDA and called on the agency to terminate Wallach’s Animal Welfare Act license and investigate Sloth Encounters for alleged AWA violations. In 2023, the New York Supreme Court ordered Wallach to cease exhibiting animals and operating as a pet store. Wallach has ignored the court’s order, continued peddling these cruel encounters and was found in civil contempt by the court in July 2023.

Gillian Lyons, director of regulatory affairs for the Humane Society Legislative Fund, said, “It is incumbent that our nation’s animal welfare laws are enforced and strengthened to ensure this industry is kept in check. We simply cannot allow facilities like Sloth Encounters, with a long history of Animal Welfare Act violations, to continue placing animals in harm’s way for the sake of a few dollars. We cannot turn a blind eye to mistreatment. The USDA must collaborate with the Department of Justice and take action against this facility.  Congress can help by passing the Better CARE for Animals Act, which will provide the DOJ with additional tools to effectively enforce the law and rescue suffering animals.”

Animal behavior and welfare expert Jay Pratte, who viewed the Humane Society of the United States video, provided a detailed statement on the conditions at the facility, noting, “Repeated exposure to overpopulated conditions, conflict with other animals and an inability to evade contact or conflict with humans or other animals, are all factors likely contributing to chronic psychological distress.”

John Di Leonardo, anthrozoologist and executive director of Humane Long Island, who has been tracking and working to end Wallach’s years of animal abuse said, “Sloth Encounters is an unlawful petting zoo that subjects vulnerable baby animals to grabbing hands, noisy crowds, and ramshackle cages inside a store zoned for pool supplies. Wallach’s reign of terror on animals ranging from sloths and tiger cubs to kangaroos and capybaras has been going on for decades. Authorities need to stop moving at a sloth’s place and shut down this heartless operation once and for all.”

According to the Humane Society of the United States, nearly 130 facilities in the U.S. offer close encounters with sloths. On average, 140 sloths are being captured in the wild and imported into the U.S. annually to feed the demand for captive sloths, according to federal data. Sloths, lemurs, otters, kangaroos and wallabies are among the latest animals who are being exploited by roughly 200 U.S. facilities that offer wildlife photos with these species. Every ticket purchased for a wild animal encounter funds a horrific industry.

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