Published: March 27, 2013
GROSSE TETE, La. — The American truck stop is a promise of certain reliables: a shower, a warm meal, some small talk at the counter, a 24/7 source of diesel, beef jerky and cigarettes.
The truck stop here just west of Baton Rouge offers all those things, but as most southern Louisianians know, it has another less standard feature: a 550-pound Bengal-Siberian tiger.
Tony is only the latest in a line of tigers to live here. Thirteen cubs were born at the truck stop, and several adult tigers brought in, including a white tiger named Salena who died of pancreatic cancer in the early 2000s and is now stuffed and sitting in the Tiger Cafe atop the salad bar.
Tony, who is 12 years old, spends his days draped languidly on top of his cinder-block den or pacing around the grass in his 40-foot-by-80-foot caged enclosure on one side of the parking lot, seemingly as unriveted by the truckers as they are by him.
He also appears unmoved by his role at the center of a costly and complicated legal dispute, pitting claims of property rights against animal rights and prompting regular news reports about his impending removal. The legal fight has gone on for years. Tony remains.
“It’s become more of a liability than an asset,” said Michael Sandlin, 50, who has run the truck stop for the past 25 years. “But it’s not the money. It’s the principle.”
The Tiger Truck Stop has long been a thorn in the paw of animal rights organizations and many animal lovers generally. Web sites have been created urging Tony’s removal, letters have been written, public officials lobbied. Robert Barham, the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, described “cases of mail from every state and a host of foreign countries.” Still, he said, state veterinarians sent to inspect Tony invariably returned with reports of good health.
Matthew Liebman, a lawyer for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, based in California, acknowledged that Tony’s situation was not the worst he had ever seen, though he and others worry about the tiger’s constant exposure to exhaust and diesel fumes.
“The bottom line for us is that tigers don’t belong in truck stops,” Mr. Liebman said. “I think it reflects a pretty commodified, objectifying view of animals that we don’t support — that they are objects of entertainment, that they are gimmicks to sell gasoline.”
In 2006, the state passed a law that put limits on “big exotic cat” possession, but allowed anyone who owned such a cat at the time to be grandfathered in. Mr. Sandlin, who had kept tigers here for nearly two decades, was granted a permit for Tony. But in a 2011 trial, lawyers for the animal defense fund showed that a parish law that was on the books in 2006 prohibited keeping exotic animals and argued that he should not have been exempted from the new law. The judge agreed and ordered Mr. Sandlin’s state permit revoked.
Mr. Sandlin, who still has a federal permit, has appealed the decision, and has also filed a separate lawsuit arguing that the state law itself is unconstitutional because it is applied unevenly and leaves too much discretion to enforcement officials.
Still, he has been looking for a retirement home for Tony. This search generated its own outcry when he said he was leaning toward a wildlife park in Oklahoma owned by a man who calls himself Joe Exotic, but whose real name is Joe Schreibvogel.
Mr. Schreibvogel’s park has attracted a good deal of controversy itself and is being investigated by federal officials for 23 tiger cub deaths. But Mr. Sandlin said he believed that it provided good care, and did not trust others to know what was good for Tony.
“He’s used to the noise from the Interstate and the trucks,” Mr. Sandlin said. “He’s used to people coming up here and looking at him.”
“To tear him away from this,” he said, breaking off, then added, “I think it would be very cruel because that’s what he’s used to.”
Mr. Sandlin and his opponents see the world rather differently. The phrase “animal rights activist,” particularly if it means someone who would ban the private ownership of exotic animals, is to Mr. Sandlin a disparagement on its face. (A T-shirt for sale in the truck stop store reads “Animal Rights Activists Taste Like Chicken.”)
But he takes no offense when critics deride him as a purveyor of roadside entertainment. He considers himself an ally of the traveling circuses that occasionally stop here, and he allows the elephants to graze out back.
The idea of a tiger truck stop had been his father’s, but opening one here seemed particularly apt given that the mascot of nearby Louisiana State University is a tiger. (The university keeps its own tiger, Mike VI, in an enclosure next to the football stadium.)
So in 1988, Mr. Sandlin arrived from Houston with Toby and Rainbow, he a mostly Bengal mix, she a purebred Siberian. In 2000, after the sale of a tiger truck stop owned by Mr. Sandlin’s father in West Texas, Toby and Rainbow were joined by Tony and Salena.
In the ensuing years, the United States Department of Agriculture issued several citations to the truck stop, among other things for allowing cubs to run loose around the office. Mr. Sandlin paid a fine and sold all the tigers but Tony.
About 35 people work at the truck stop, including a sister of Michael Sandlin’s; a brother-in-law; a niece; a nephew; Mr. Sandlin’s mother, Virginia, who handles billing; and his domestic partner of 26 years, Scott Holbrook, who is the vice president of the truck stop as well as the video poker manager.
There is also a middle-aged man named Ray Jackson, who buses tables at the restaurant and who will sing on command. Seeing him outside the Tiger Cafe, Mr. Sandlin said the word and Mr. Jackson stopped immediately and sang “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross.”
“People get a kick out of that,” Mr. Sandlin said.
For now, there is the wait for a ruling. An immediate change is unlikely even then, but as a breed, the tiger truck stop’s days may be numbered.
“There are certainly some substandard roadside zoos,” Mr. Liebman said. “But this is the only truck stop tiger I know of.”
Tony’s Petition ~ Nearing 25,000: http://www.change.org/petitions/ldwf-ensure-tony-the-tiger-is-released-to-a-reputable-sanctuary