BY JOE GYAN JR.
Advocate staff writer
January 04, 2012
The owner of a Grosse Tete truck stop filed suit Tuesday in Baton Rouge against the state of Louisiana and Iberville Parish in a last-ditch effort to continue keeping a 550-pound tiger on display at the facility.
Tiger Truck Stop owner Michael Sandlin argues he and his truck stop have held a federal permit since 1988 to keep tigers at the truck stop, and Tony, a Siberian-Bengal mix, has been kept there lawfully for 10 years.
Sandlin contends the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, a defendant in his lawsuit, lacks statutory and constitutional authority to prohibit ownership of big cats by owners with federal permits.
“I think this is an important lawsuit,’’ Sandlin said. “It will set a precedent for animal owners all over the country.’’
Sandlin’s lawsuit also claims the litigation is important for exotic animals.
“The fact is that the exotic animals in the wild are disappearing at alarming rates because of the illegal activity of criminal poachers. Thus, private ownership and exhibits like Sandlin’s and Tiger Truck Stop’s has become the safe haven for these most precious of our endangered commodities,’’ the lawsuit said.
“Making it more difficult and expensive to assist with preserving these precious species is only furthering the likelihood that private citizens will stop assisting with the fight to prevent the complete extinction of these animals.’’
Animal Legal Defense Fund staff attorney Matthew Liebman said Sandlin’s lawsuit is “baseless and without merit.’’
“We are confident that the state of Louisiana and the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries acted well within their legal authority when they decided to protect both the public and big cats like Tony by restricting private ownership of wild animals,’’ he said.
A spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office, Amanda Larkins, said the state’s attorneys were unable to comment on the lawsuit because they were in the process of reviewing it.
Sandlin’s lawsuit comes two months after a state District Court judge ruled Tony is not permitted by state law to remain at the truck stop off Interstate 10.
Judge Mike Caldwell said a state permit can be issued only to an individual, not a corporation, and Tiger Truck Stop is the permit holder, not Sandlin.
Caldwell barred Wildlife and Fisheries from issuing any new permits to keep Tony on display.
Tiger Truck Stop’s state permit expired Dec. 31.
The ruling, which came in a lawsuit that the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed last year against Wildlife and Fisheries, is being appealed by Sandlin, who intervened in the lawsuit.
Caldwell’s judgment is not final until the appeals process runs its course.
If Sandlin’s appeal is ultimately denied, Wildlife and Fisheries has said it would give Sandlin 30 days to move Tony to a sanctuary of Sandlin’s choosing.
In its suit, the Animal Legal Defense Fund cited a 2006 Louisiana law that prohibits the private ownership of large and exotic cats.
The law includes a grandfather exception that allows people to keep exotic cats as pets as long as the animals were legally owned before Aug. 15, 2006, when the law went into effect.
Tony was not legally owned by Tiger Truck Stop before that date because a 1993 Iberville Parish ordinance prohibits anyone from owning wild, exotic or vicious animals for display or exhibition, the Animal Legal Defense Fund said.
Sandlin’s lawsuit said the 2006 state law and the 1993 Iberville Parish ordinance are unconstitutional.
Wildlife and Fisheries has never been given any authority over exotic animals because exotic animals are not indigenous to the state, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit also said the Iberville ordinance does not have an exception for persons with proper permits under federal law.
Sandlin’s lawsuit was assigned to state District Judge Janice Clark.