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Snake bit

Snake bit

Cleo died.

The burmese python was coiled against the plexiglass in her small tank. Her nearly 9 feet of grey, speckled skin, which had been petted by thousands of New Jersey school children over the years, was lifeless. A partially digested rat, her final meal, sat nearby.

According to former workers at Rizzos Wildlife World, an indoor animal exhibit center and traveling reptile show in Morris County, Cleo died from a respiratory infection that had plagued her for years. Staff members said they repeatedly asked their boss, Dominic J. Rizzo, to take the python to a vet. But, as far as they knew, the beloved snake received no medical treatment or professional help.

Rizzo was angry that one of his star snakes had died, telling workers at the wildlife center they might not have enough giant pythons for the animal shows and parties the company had booked that week across the state, according to former staffers. A few days later, Rizz was furious that a number of of the center's top snake hunters had passed away, warning employees they didn't have sufficient giants pyrogons to accommodate the animals for animal parties and events the business had scheduled that same week around

Susan Tierney, one of his young workers, was then allegedly hit on the butt by he walked over.

According to Tierney and other workers on the day, Ah, that always makes me feel better, Rizzo said, smiling.

And that was the tipping point. Tierney and three other young women who had worked for Rizzo for years said they gathered after work that night in January 2020 and pledged to stay.

They would all quit. Rizzos Wildlife World had made every alleged sexual harassment, unintentional touching, and sexual comments to them. One of New Jerseys largest and most popular animal shows, which had given educational performances in hundreds of local schools, libraries, summer camps, and churches, would inform authorities that it was neglecting and mistreating some of its nearly 300 animals.

The next day, the four women, all in their teens and early 20s, said they resigned and drove to the Roxbury Township police station, equipped with photos of Cleo and other sick and dead snakes and animals. They also had handwritten lists of dozens of sexual harassment incidents they claimed they experienced at Rizzos.

The women spent 13 hours over two days giving lengthy statements to police officers, they said. They sketched out plans of the facility. Rizzo confessed to police over the phone while they listened in, they added, but they failed.

And then.... nothing.

More than 20 months later, the women claim they are still waiting to see if the Roxbury Police Department or the Morris County Prosecutors Office will bring charges. Meanwhile, Rizzos Wildlife World is still open for birthday celebrations and tours, and continues to perform taxpayer-funded animal shows in public schools, town camps, libraries, schools and libraries across the state.

This is what people tell you to do when you learn about sexual harassment in school, said Maria Fernandez. Juliet Campbell, 21, one of the four former employees who filed a police report in January 2020, stated, "They tell you to speak up." We did, she added. Not only one person spoke up, but we all spoke out. And nothing happened.

The police told us that creepy isnt criminal. Or... we werent touched enough. And that hurts a lot, Campbell added.

Dominic Rizzo, the owner of Rizz's Wildlife World in Flanders, leads a show at the center in 2019 in spooky photos taken by employees.

Nine former Rizzos Wildlife World employees spoke to NJ Advance Media about their experiences at Rizz's in Flanders. All but one of those interviewed spoke on the record. The former workers, including two male workers who worked for Rizzo, described a business staffed largely by teen girls and women in their early 20s, where sexual misconduct by Rizz was routinely tolerated and animals were often left without adequate water, food, or veterinary care.

Rizzo, 48, did not respond to multiple requests to comment on the sexual harassment or animal neglect allegations.

In police statements provided to NJ Advance Media, the women allege Rizzo repeatedly slapped and pinched female workers butts, offered to expose his penis, pressured them to share hotel rooms with him on overnight trips, gave unwelcome hugs and kisses and made sexual remarks on a daily basis.

Several of the young women who had previously worked at the facility said they were disturbed by Rizzo's behavior, but did not complain while they remained with him. The small business had no human resources department, and the women said they stayed on the job because they were animal lovers. They feared what would happen to the hundreds of snakes, turtles and toads that were stacked in tanks in the back rooms of Rizzos Wildlife World if they quit.

We cared about the animals more than we care for ourselves, said Tierney, 23, one of the workers who resigned last year and went to police. Rizzo claimed she was kissing her behind her ear and hugging her daily, as well as slapping or pinching she butt up to five times a day before she quit. She filed .

The Roxbury Police and the Morris County Prosecutors Office neither responded to requests for comment on the 2020 police reports filed by the four women alleging animal abuse and sexual harassment at the facility. Requests filed under the states Open Public Records Act turned up no documents indicating whether the allegations were investigated.

The Morris County Prosecutors Office stated, Legal and ethical principles prevent law enforcement agencies from disclosing information that would establish the existence or nonexistence of pre-charge investigations relating to a specific individual.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees federal animal welfare laws, Rizzo is fully licensed to exhibit animals under a permit given to Rizzis Reptile Discovery, one of his businesses. According to a federal inspection database, USDA officials have visited his facility at least eight times between 2014 and 2021 for routine inspections and found no critical violations involving animals.

According to the USDA, inspectors only examined a handful of mammals at Rizzos Wildlife World, including guinea pigs, chinchillas and ferrets. Under federal rules, USDA inspectors don't examine snakes and other reptiles that make up the bulk of the hundreds of Rizzo-owned animals.

That isnt unusual, according to David Favre, a Michigan State University law professor who specializes in animal law.

The law is indifferent to reptiles. In theory, theyre protected, but in practice, he added, here they are rarely protected.

A state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on whether Rizzos Wildlife World was ever investigated for its treatment of animals. However, an Open Public Records Act request indicates the agency received an anonymous complaint in June about the living conditions of reptiles at the center, including allegations alligators are kept in confined tanks and turtles live in tanks without filters.

Starting small, start small. Start small!

Rizzos Wildlife World, now housed in a converted warehouse off Route 206 in Flanders, got its start in an unfinished suburban basement, former employees said.

Rizzo began his business in 2003 as a traveling show that entertained children at schools, fairs, and birthday parties with animals he kept at his home in Budd Lake, according to his former workers. Rizzo's side business that started with 25 animals quickly expanded to hundreds, allowing him to eventually turn his side enterprise into a career, they added.

According to its website, Rizzo unveiled Rizzs Wildlife World in 2016, which included space to display animals for public tours, a small stage area for shows, and facilities to host parties.

Serpents by Design, an exotic animal breeding business housed in the same building, according to licensing records, was also founded by Rizzo. According to its website, it sells baby pythons, geckos, and other reptiles for as much as $7,500 each at regional exotic pet shows and on the internet.

Rizzo's Wildlife World in Flanders is a converted warehouse space that houses hundreds of reptiles and animals for tours, educational shows, and parties. (Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media)

Rizzo has also worked at a newspaper printing factory in Morris County that produces The Star-Ledger and other newspapers, according to former employees.

Rizzo's age, his responsibilities, or whether there have been complaints about him at the printing plant, Star-Ledger officials declined to comment on the allegations, nor his employment dates.

Steve Leotsakos, The Star-Ledger's vice president of operations, said: He was a part-time employee who is no longer being used. (Advance Local is the parent company of The Star-Ledger and NJ Advance Media, which produce stories and content for the newspaper.) The Star-Ledger and NJAM are separate businesses.)

Rizzo recruited workers for the firm through posters at local colleges and by offering jobs to young people who took his tours or expressed an interest in his animals at parties, former employees said. Though some older women worked as receptionists at the facility, most of the people Rizzo recruited were female and young, according to the workers.

Laura Clarke, 24, who worked for Rizzo for three years before leaving in 2020, added that even the public would come in and be like, Wow, full team of girls, huh?

Many of the young women were expected to coordinate the educational animal shows at local schools, libraries, camps, and fairs, which were the business' biggest income-making endeavors.

Rizzo's workers would perform as many as 25 shows a day during the summer, each charging between $400 and $2,000, according to former staffers. The workers would bring snakes, toads and small crocodiles for children to learn about and touch.

The company also began producing shows outside of the United States, including providing animals to appear on the CBS television series Elementary and on Fox News, as well as entertaining celebrities at parties, such as Lucy Liu, Ben Stiller, Hugh Jackman, and Snookie, the former employees said.

Staffers, who say they made between $7 and $16 an hour, said they received little or no training before going out on their first shows as inexperienced teenagers with plastic tubs full of snakes and other animals. In many cases, the women said they were sent out on their own with a dozen or more animals to lead shows alone in front of large groups of young children.

Christina Lokai, who worked at Rizzos for five years, before becoming manager of Rizzi's Wildlife World, described it as literally children watching children handle a snake.

The only training I got Dominic told me that I had to get bit by an animal before I could enter a show, so I wouldnt be surprised if an individual bites me, Lokai said, who took her first Rizzos animal show shortly after turning 18.

Rizzos instructions said she locked her hand in a rat snake tank and allowed herself to be bit, noting she was too young to realize it was reckless. . Within days, she was holding powerful pythons and small alligators in front of hundreds of children in shows.

The workers' youth and inexperience, many of whom were adolescent girls in their first jobs, made it difficult for them to speak up when Rizzo allegedly made sexual remarks or touched them inappropriately, according to former employees.

Tierney wrote in her five-page statement to the Roxbury Police Department in 2020, on the day she left. I have been sexually harassed from the beginning, she said in the statement.

Though she worked at Rizzos Wildlife World for less than a year, she walked into the police station with obscene lists of 36 alleged sexual harassment incidents on her name.

Tierney claimed Rizzo touched her inappropriately, asked about her sexual experiences, and propped her for sex. According to a copy of her police report, he offered to give her his penis, then dragged her by the wrist into 'a back room' and shut the door before letting her go and saying oh, "He was joking."

Rizzo began hugging and kissing her behind her ear each morning, and she would either pin or slap her butt up to five times a day, even though her mother was frequently in the building working as receptionist at the facility, Tierneys police statement said.

Rizzo also repeatedly urged her to take an overnight trip to an out-of-state reptile expo, Tierney said.

He asked me to go and said, Wed stay in the same room and bed. Maybe I can take a peek of you naked in the shower. I wouldnt cross the line, like we wouldn't have full on sex, but we can do things close to it, Tierney said in her police statement.

She was 21 at the time and was afraid to confront Rizzo about how she was being treated, she said.

Tierney, who recently graduated from the University of Scranton, said that Tierney repeated, Im not your boss, I am your friend, to justify his actions.

Clarke, who started Rizzos to fulfill a college intern requirement and later rose to assistant manager, and Campbell, whose career at the wildlife center spanned 2 1/2 years, both filed similar police reports after they left in 2020. They allege animal cruelty, sexual harassment, and inappropriate touching by Rizzo.

Clarke, who has since worked at several local zoos and one of the areas largest aquariums, said: I was physically, mentally, verbally, emotionally, and physically abused, assaulted, the whole nine yards.

Max Carroll, one of the few male employees at Rizzos Wildlife World who was not involved in sexual harassment, said he witnessed some of it and offered to speak to Rizz on behalf of his female co-workers. But, he said, they refused, fearing for their lives. He remained silent, a decision he said 'he regrets'.

Carroll, who worked at the center for three years before leaving last year, said that even if it had violated their trust, she felt like she should have said something earlier.

Grace Brescia, another of the women who went to police in 2020 after quitting, described daily inappropriate touching by Rizzo, sexually suggestive comments, and repeated offers to accompany him on overnight trips and share a hotel room with him.

Brescia, a Montclair State graduate who now works at an animal clinic, said she was thrilled to be working in her first job with wildlife and stayed so long because she wasn't interested in the animals and was naive about how bosses should behave.

I was the definition of a complete mess. In her two years at the firm, Brescia held the positions of program director, wildlife manager, marketing chair, conservation educator, and animal keeper.

She eventually began arranging the work schedule so that no female workers had to work alone with Rizzo on any shift, she added.

Brescia, who is due to leave in 2020, was denied employment. In March, she filed a two-page document to the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which listed examples of constant sexual harassment and assault from my former employer.

According to a copy of the document filed with the state, she also included alleged quotes from Rizzo commenting on her body and offering to bring condoms to the Christmas work party.

Brescias aunt, who she was living with at the time, also filed a three-page legal document in 2020 with the state Department of Labor that documented instances of alleged sexual harassment by Rizzo that her niece told her about before she quit.

According to a copy of the affidavit, Brescia was suffering panic attacks and other physical symptoms related to Rizzo's behavior, according to the aunt.

Brescia and Campbell both claimed they were also traumatized by an incident in the summer of 2019, when Rizzo allegedly asked Campbell and another female employee hold down a sick python while he put his forearm inside the snake to forcefully collect her eggs for breeding purposes.

Rizzo began to make a number of sexual remarks to the women in the midst of the procedure, according to them.

According to Campbell, Rizzo said, This is the technique I use on women, as he forced his arm into the snake.

Campbell called Brescia in tears after the incident, which allegedly ended with Rizzo cutting the eggs out of the snake while it was still alive. Brescia described the incident in her 2020 statement to police as an example of both alleged animal abuse and sexual harassment, according to Brecia.

Animal welfare concerns are raising.

Other Rizzos employees said they left because they had concerns about the treatment of the animals.

If one animal got sick, they all got ill. Samantha Barrere, 25, who worked at Rizzos for 2 1/2 years and created Rizz s marketing materials and commercials as the firm's commercial manager, added that Dominic wasn't willing to pay the vet bills to care for them.

I watched it get worse and worse every day. Barrere, who left in 2019 and now works as a zookeeper at ohio county zao, said she left because she stayed so long trying to make things better.

Rizzos Wildlife World's former employees said they tried to warn police about possible animal welfare concerns by contacting them.

Lokai, the former longtime manager and worker at Rizzos Wildlife World, said she received a slew of phone calls from current RizzS employees in July 2019 who claimed rats brought in to feed the snakes had been placed in an improper enclosure and escaped into the building overnight.

Rizzo, according to Lokai, allegedly began shooting runaway rats with a BB gun and used slingshots to sweep under tanks and cabinets to try to kill the rodents. Then, Rizzo allegedly allowed a snake into the facility to kill and eat the wounded rats while unknowing customers were in 'a nearby room watching an animal show'.

Though Lokai was now working at a new job in Pittsburgh, she said the panicked Rizzos workers asked her what to do. She called Roxbury Police to file an animal abuse report.

According to a copy of the 2019 police report on the incident, police searched Rizzos Wildlife World, but found no evidence that rats were killed inhumanely.

Dominic told me that he feeds rats to the snakes. According to the officer, There appeared to be no issue."

Due to the COVID-19 epidemic, Rizzos Wildlife World closed its doors to visitors last year and canceled performances.

A GoFundMe page, started by an employee, asked for donations to help feed the animals.

Seventy-one little mouths, or little animal mouth, rely on us! the article continued. More than 100 individuals, including a Cub Scout troop and swiss second grade class, pledged more than $7,500.

According to event announcements on social media, Rizzos performance bookings have started to rebound despite the fact that the Rizz's Wildlife World building is only open for scheduled tours on weekends. In recent months, the business has presented animal shows at the New Jersey State Fair, Sussex County Fairs, Roxbury Public Library, Elizabeth Public Libraries, Florham Park Library and various summer camps.

At a show in August at the Metuchen Public Library, sexy female Rizzos Wildlife World t-shirt employee arrived alone to present an hour-long educational show to about 75 children and adults.

An NJ Advance Media reporter observed as she pulled seven animals from a series of plastic bins and explained where they came from and what they ate. Snakes, otters, tortoises, an chinchilla, and sandhillas were among the animals she took from the bin. She walked around the room, allowing everyone in the audience to touch each animal, except for the alligator, which was quickly returned to a padlocked plastic box.

Hissy Pants, a large albino burmese python that wrapped itself around the womans torso and legs as she let the children pet it, was the grand finale.

While Rizzos Wildlife World continues to host shows and is once again open for tours, many of the former employees who left last year have moved on to work in other nearby zoos and wildlife centers.

The four women who filed police reports accusing Rizzo of sexual harassment and animal abuse say they have checked in with local police and the county prosecutors office, but they've no hope that the complaints they filed last year will go any further.

All said they are still concerned about the women who still work at Rizzos Wildlife World and the animals.

It felt wonderful to leave the company, to forget the harassment and the abuse, Clarke said. But it was a terrible experience to leave the animals behind, he added.

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