Three Ohio residents face federal charges for allegedly holding a disabled woman and her child captive for more than two years, the US Department of Justice says.
They had allegedly threatened her with large snakes and forced her to sleep in a room where an iguana roamed freely to intimidate her and prevent her from escaping.
The mother was beaten, threatened with a gun and forced to do manual labour, the department said on Tuesday. She and her daughter were denied food and threatened with pit bulls in addition to the reptiles, according to the affidavit outlining the charges.
Two men and a woman, Jordie Callahan, 26; Jessica Hunt, 31; and Daniel Brown, 33 were charged with forced labour. Callahan is charged with an additional count of tampering with a witness.
Ashland Chief of Police David Marcelli said the case was uncovered after the woman was arrested for shoplifting a chocolate bar and asked to be taken to jail because her roommates "were mean to her".
"The officer who took that complaint detected that there were other issues aside from the shoplifting," Marcelli said on CNN.
Steve Dettelbach, US attorney for the northern district of Ohio, said the case "modern-day slavery".
According to the affidavit, the snakes included a poisonous coral snake, a ball python and a Burmese python that weighed 60kg.
She was badly beaten allegedly on three occasions so that her captors could send her to hospital for treatment, and then take her pain medication - the prescription drug Vicodin - for themselves.
Callahan and Hunt recruited the woman, who is identified in the affidavit only by the initials SE, and her child to live with them in their apartment in Ashland, about 120 kilometres south of Cleveland.
They forced the woman, described in the affidavit as cognitively disabled, to clean the house, do laundry, and walk to the store to do their shopping, and care for their numerous pit bulls and reptiles.
Hunt also is accused of taking the woman's monthly public assistance payments.
The woman was made to stay with repeated threats that her daughter - who is now five or six - would be harmed or taken away from her if she didn't do as she was told, prosecutors said.
They were repeatedly beaten, threatened with the pit bulls and the snakes, and watched with a baby monitor to make sure the woman wouldn't untie her daughter's bound hands or sneak some food or water to the girl.
They also shaved her head into a mohawk and wrote "slut", "whore" and other derogatory words on her face and chest with a permanent marker at one point, charging papers said.
The girl was often kept bound and locked in a room and wouldn't be let out to use the bathroom until her mother was finished with housework.
The roommates withheld food from their captives as another means of intimidation, giving them only canned goods or what was left over after Callahan, Hunt and Hunt's four children finished eating.
She told police she would regularly have to wait until 8pm until she was permitted to give her daughter anything to eat.
When she complained that her child hadn't eaten all day, Callahan got a plate of food and gave it to a dog out of spite, prosecutors said.
The woman was given fruit and vegetables to feed the iguana, but told her child couldn't eat any of the fresh food in the house.
A number of witnesses - including one currently in jail - corroborated the disabled woman's story, charging papers showed.
One witness described seeing Callahan drag the woman down the stairs by her hair and hold her face down in a mess made by one of the dogs.
Another witness told investigators that when she asked why the woman and her daughter were always in a stifling hot room, Hunt told her "because they're gross".
The mother of one of the suspects, identified only as Becky, said none of the charges was true.
In an interview on CNN, she said the alleged victim was not forced to work and abused her child. Her son and the others had been accused by local law enforcement officials who wanted to "make a big case", she said.