The Sloth King: Long Island’s Joe Exotic Accused of Mistreating Animals Again

Photo via Getty Images

When Nicole Rice began working at Sloth Encounters, a exotic petting zoo/pet store in Hauppauge, she saw early signs of animal neglect.

“I started seeing the animals physically looking unwell,” said Rice, 21, of Baldwin.

During her employment several years ago, Rice noticed bug infestations in the cages, unsafe working conditions, and the establishment’s owner, Larry Wallach, mishandling the sloths. Slowphilia, one of the friendlier sloths, often bore the brunt of Wallach’s exploitation, according to Rice.

“He would start aggressively handling her, shaking her, dragging her – while she was sleeping – out of the box so people could come touch her,” Rice said.

In February 2024, Wallach received three Animal Welfare Act violations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including two critical violations. These infractions followed undercover investigations from both Humane Long Island and the Humane Society of the United States documenting abusive conditions at Sloth Encounters. The Humane Society of the U.S. discovered “staff hitting sloths, stressed sloths kept in crowded conditions fighting with one another, and a sloth with a flesh wound struggling when Wallach roughly grabbed his head.” 

Attorneys for the Town of Islip asked the Suffolk County Supreme Court to hold Wallach in contempt for repeatedly violating court orders by continuing Sloth Encounters operations. Wallach previously told the Press that he had no knowledge of town attorneys filing this motion and that Sloth Encounters operates perfectly legally.

“All our papers, all of our permits are with the town,” Wallach said. “That’s the truth. The animal rights people don’t want this place to be [here], but it’s not breaking any laws. These are legal pets in New York State. The only people who don’t like it are the animal rights people. Everything they say about me so far has been a lie.”

The court ordered Wallach to shut down his store by March 24. 

“He’s facing possible incarceration, fines totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, and seizure of the animals,” said John Di Leonardo, an anthrozoologist and president of Humane Long Island.

Sloths are solitary animals that don’t like to be handled. They are mostly deaf and nearly blind in daylight. Forcing them to interact with crowds can be dangerous.

“[Wallach] actually got cited in November of 2022 for the bite of a child by one of these sloths,” Di Leonardo said. “We’ve had several whistleblowers come forward alleging that there have been many, many more bites.”

Rice says while sloths “look all cute and cuddly at first” they aren’t the nicest animals.

“They are nocturnal and they like to be left alone during the day,” Rice said.

On average, Sloths sleep 15 hours per day. Rice says the store animals weren’t getting enough rest and employees pressed Wallach to allow more shuteye.

“For a couple of months, he stopped doing encounters on Mondays because of all of us basically yelling at him saying ‘you have to give these animals a day off,’” Rice said. “Mondays were the days where he wasn’t making enough money.”

This is not Wallach’s first encounter with animal welfare concerns.

“He’s been doing this stuff for decades,” Di Leonardo said.

Wallach would illegally house exotic animals at his former East Rockaway home, where he would “carelessly exhibit” them, according to Di Leonardo. Wallach used to have lions, tigers, and bears, but the Department of Environmental Conservation failed to renew his ownership permit after Wallach continuously ignored animal welfare and public safety regulations, as reported by Humane Long Island.

“PETA exposed the video of him electroshocking a baby tiger cub and dragging that tiger by the leash across the floor,” Di Leonardo said. “He ended up getting cited for a critical violation for not giving that animal appropriate veterinary care for a broken toe.”

Last year, Wallach was caught selling baby Nile monitors, an African lizard that can average 4 to 7 feet in adulthood. He pled guilty to selling the reptiles, which resulted in a $250 fine. Humane Long Island also reported evidence of Wallach trafficking day-old bear cubs to an unlicensed man training them for shows in Florida. Two of those cubs escaped and roamed a residential neighborhood before being caught.

Sloths, kangaroos, and capybaras are subject to weaker licensing regulations by the USDA.

“He’s gotten more than 60 violations now of the federal Animal Welfare Act, but the USDA continues to renew his license regardless,” Di Leonardo said.

An undercover investigation at Sloth Encounters revealed sloths being hit with a bottle.


Some residents view Wallach as Long Island’s very own Tiger King – a reference to the Netflix docuseries exposing shady big-cat exhibitors. Rice’s sister had worked for Joe Exotic, the infamous Tiger King, but Rice says she thinks Wallach is even worse.

“The Tiger King actually loved [his animals] at one point. I full-on think [Wallach] liked his animals, but he just saw money grabs all times,” Rice said.

Rice says that while Exotic’s animals weren’t kept in the best conditions, they were treated way better than Wallach’s.

“I feel like if Larry was in the Tiger King’s position, he would let people interact with his thousand-pound tigers,” Rice said.

Rice was introduced to Wallach by a family friend when she was just 9. She quickly became friends with Wallach’s daughter, who was around her age.

“I’d go over [to Wallach’s house and] there’d be a tiger, there would be a wallaby, there’d be these exotic birds,” Rice said. “He’s had a bear there at one point.”

When she was about 17, she began working at animal-handling party gigs for Wallach.

“I would help him with making sure people were touching the animals correctly, how to properly interact with them, everything was all good,” Rice said. “When I first met him, he was a pretty decent human being. I don’t know what happened with this sloth stuff, but he went downhill fast.”

In 2022, Wallach asked Rice to join his sloth venture. Rice says that only a few employees were properly taking care of the sloths.

“We were the only ones that were fully deep-cleaning their houses they would sleep in,” Rice said.

Overcrowding of the business became a regular occurrence, which employees attempted to challenge.

“He would tell us we don’t know what we’re talking about,” Rice said. “He knows the animals. He’s worked with them forever. We don’t know what we’re doing and we should shut up.”

The overcrowding became so overwhelming for Rice that during a particularly busy shift she told Wallach she needed to go home due to an emergency. On the way home, she got in a car crash.

“It was actually, unfortunately, one of the best ways to make up an excuse to not go back,” Rice.

After Rice parted ways with Sloth Encounters, she began working at a PetSmart. She struck up a conversation with a customer who told her that he used to work with sloths. 

“I was like, wait a second — there’s only one person I know on Long Island that has sloths right now,” Rice said.

They shared their experiences of working for Wallach. The former employee told Rice they were working with Di Leonardo to take down Wallach, and got Rice involved.

Humane LI has evidence of Wallach exhibiting sloths all over New York State, including with an employee in disguise who was supposedly let go after abusing sloths. Wallach continued to keep Sloth Encounters open after a Supreme Court justice ordered it to close and told patrons to park in discreet areas and enter through the back. 

He also brought sloths to unlicensed cannabis parties, where the sloths allegedly got high, according to Humane Long Island. Wallach told Fox 5 he was misled about the pot party and quickly left the event.

An HSUS undercover investigation at Sloth Encounters in Hauppauge, NY revealed sloths, a kangaroo, capybaras and other animals in confined conditions, forced to interact with members of the public. As observed by the investigator on Nov. 4, 2023, two capybaras lived in a barren cage lacking enrichment and necessary environmental complexity. As a semi-aquatic species, they require a pool of water to submerge themselves to express natural behaviors, but our investigator did not observe a pool in the enclosure. The animals had two buckets-one with hay and the other layered with an excessive accumulation of feces. The animals were exposed to seasonal temperatures in a high-traffic lobby area/entrance. The enclosure had only a small dog crate for the reclusive animals to escape from customers and employees.Humane Society of the U.S.


Wallach has a history of involvement with unsavory characters. He’s been reportedly linked to Tiger King documentary subjects Joe Exotic, who’s serving a 22-year sentence for 17 animal abuse charges and two counts of attempted murder-for-hire, and Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who’s currently in prison for wildlife trafficking. 

“He actually posts pictures and videos that are at Doc Antle’s place still,” Di Leonardo said.

Antle and Exotic both face allegations regarding sexual abuse of minors. Wallach also helped pornstar and accused rapist Ron Jeremy get his animal exhibitor license.

“If you Google ‘Larry Wallach and Ron Jeremy’ you’ll see videos of him and Ron Jeremy in a pool encouraging a tiger cub to fight with his dog.”

Sam Mazzola, a bear-wrestler and convicted steroid and cocaine dealer, ran an Ohio petting zoo with Wallach for a period of time.

In 2009, the USDA revoked Mazzola’s license to sell or exhibit wild animals. A year later a bear on his property fatally mauled a caretaker. Shortly after, Mazzola died during a sex act involving a 17-year-old boy.

“Larry is a very bad man who does not care about your children,” Di Leonardo said. “He doesn’t care about animals. He’s just like these other guys that really only care about fame and money.”

Humane Long Island urged authorities to confiscate Wallach’s animals so they can be moved to reputable sanctuaries. Di Leonardo also said, “As of now, it appears the animals have been removed from the store (according to [the Town of] Islip’s fire marshals). Sloth Encounters’ website is down, and the overhead sign on the storefront has been removed.”

Humane LI also wants to see Wallach face incarceration and have his animal exhibitor license revoked. 

Both Rice and Di Leonardo think Wallach’s case paints a larger picture of animal exploitation on Long Island.

“The amount of stuff that you see happens on Long Island through Facebook – that’s not even covered on the news unless it’s like a big dog-fighting ring bust – it’s absurd,” Rice said. “I think paying attention to that will help legislators not only gain their own personal votes, but also gain the rights for the animals that so many people have been asking for.”

A kangaroo is seen in a barren cage beside the front door to the facility, without any enrichment or environmental complexity, except a bowl of food. The animal is exposed to seasonal temperatures, is in a high-traffic lobby area/entrance. In his small cage with fake grass, the animal has no hiding spaces to escape or evade the public or exhibit his natural behaviors.Humane Society of the U.S.