3:16 PM, Apr 15, 2011 – Written By Ken Christian
BATON ROUGE, La. (NBC) — A Louisiana state agency is under fire from a national animal rights group after activists say the organization issued an illegal permit to keep a grown tiger at a truck stop.
Tony the tiger has been the center of controversy since his arrival at Tiger Truck Stop more than a decade ago.
Now, an animal rights group has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries for letting Tony’s owner keep him without meeting all the requirements laid out in the Louisiana law.
In 2006, former state representative Warren Triche authored a bill that eventually led to the ban on private ownership of big cats, including tigers.
“The bill aimed itself at trying to make sure that some organization would be able to have oversight over that captive large animal,” says Triche.
The Wildlife and Fisheries Commission was put in charge of regulating those permits.
They cited several reasons for their decision to stop issuing permits for new purchase, sale, and ownership of big cats, including the safety and care of the exotic animals and the danger posed to people living in the area.
“What happens when a 300 or 400 pound tiger escapes into the general public?” asks Triche. “Who do you call?”
Under the new laws people who already owned big cats, like Tony, were only allowed to keep them if they met certain criteria.
The lawsuit, filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, states that Tony’s owner, Michael Sandlin, did not meet all those requirements.
The law states that to keep the exotic pet, you have to live on the same land where the animal is kept.
The lawsuit says Sandlin does not live at the truck stop.
Still, Sandlin received a “grandfather permit” in 2009 and it was renewed in December 2010.
Tony continues to live in a concrete cage right next to the truck stop.
“He’s adversely being affected by the habitat that he’s in,” says Triche.
Advocates to free Tony say he’s being used as a tourist attraction.
“The owner of the cat just uses the cat as a lure into the restaurant and fuel facility there,” says Triche. “His only thought is escape and that’s no way to live.”
The goal of the lawsuit is to revoke Sandlin’s permit, so Tony can find a better home, one where he can live the life activists say he deserves.
Triche says the bill excludes mascots, like Mike the Tiger, from the ban.
A spokesperson for Wildlife and Fisheries says the department is unable to speak about the lawsuit.
Tony is attracting celebrity attention.
“True Blood” star Kristin Bauer, has joined the forces with the Animal Legal Defense Fund to free Tony.