By Emily Lane, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
April 28, 2014 at 6:00 PM, updated April 28, 2014 at 9:50 PM
A Louisiana state senator hinted the Legislature dodged an unwanted national spotlight Monday (April 29) by narrowly voting down a bill that would let the owner of a truck stop off of Interstate 10 keep his roadside attraction, a Bengal-Siberian mix tiger.
But the sponsor of the bill, which the Senate voted down 19-18, recalled visiting the truck stop tiger as a boy and defended the owner as someone who cared for his tigers and always tried to comply with the ever-changing laws regulating exotic cats in Louisiana.
Senate Bill 250, sponsored by Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, aims to prevent the state from seizing Tony the tiger from Grosse Tete-located Tiger Truck Stop Inc. and its owner Michael Sandlin. Ward can bring the bill back up again and indicated he will.
Ownership and possession of the 14-year-old tiger, which lives in a 40-by-80-foot cage at the stop 20 minutes outside Baton Rouge, is currently up in the air pending litigation. Tiger Truck Stop owner Michael Sandlin challenged the state’s attempt to remove Tony after the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal ruled in April that Sandlin’s permit to keep Tony was invalid because he is not Tony’s legal owner. Tiger Truck Stop Inc. has owned Tony since 2000, but new rules promulgated by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries require the owner to be an individual, not a corporation.
Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, handed out photos of the tiger’s cage. “It’s a chain-link fence keeping in a Siberian tiger,” he said. Though pictures of the cage Morrell placed on desks of every senator played to the animal rights angle, Morrell kept much of his argument on the floor geared toward public safety.
He read over the microphone answers to some of the questions, which were part of the lawsuit evidence, posed to Tiger Truck Stop employees in the event that the tiger escape.
One employee said in the event of an escape, after notifying the area, calling animal control and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, he would “get whichever gun I would need.”
Another, asked the first action he would take in the event of an escape, answered, “Rescue everybody.” The same employee, asked what to do if he couldn’t find the tiger, answered: “‘Good question,'” then added, “Somebody’s gonna have to find him.”
The questionnaires also reveled all employees had attended a Wildlife and Fisheries hunter safety course and were trained to carry out the escape plan. Sandlin, though, when asked if he had read the escape plan, answered: “Insurance company wrote escape plan.”
The original version of the bill extended beyond just Tony, to other private owners of exotic cats. It also would have allowed Sandlin to continue to house tigers. But the version the Senate took up Monday makes an exception only for Tony.
“I remember going (to the Tiger Truck Stop) as a kid, growing up,” Ward, 31, said last week. His district includes the town in Iberville Parish where the truck stop is located. Ward said the Sandlins have a good track record of caring for the animals, as far as he knows, and he feel’s his permit should have been pulled because of retroactive rules added to the exotic cat statute. He echoed a concern voiced by Sandlin that relocating the tiger, which Sandlin said likely has six or seven years left, could be traumatic for the animal and possibly risk his health. “I thought it was the right thing to do,” Ward said of sponsoring the legislation.
Matthew Liebman, attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, of Cotati, Calif., said the assertion that relocating Tony could be harmful to the tiger a “sounds like a scare tactic to me.” Liebman represented plaintiffs in the legal battle. Maintaining the tiger in captivity, “and certainly at a truck stop,” raises humane concerns, as well as public safety, he said.
But Sandlin argued the public is “more likely to be attacked by a vending machine or a shopping cart at Albertsons than a wild animal.”
Sandlin said he’s spent more than $250,000 in fighting for Tony in court, and the tiger, at this point, is more of a liability than a financial asset. “But it’s not about the money.
“Over 25 years I’ve been bottle feeding them, wiping their buts, loving them and raising them…Every day I get to see the smiles of people’s faces, especially the children, that love to come stop here and see Tony.”
Sandlin said he was disappointed the addition of the amendment went short of grandfathering in his exhibit for the future, but the bill “would be a victory to get some justice” regarding Tony. He feels he’s been harassed and tried to follow the law, but new rules have “made criminals overnight” of law abiding, responsible private owners.
Morrell also noted the it sets a bad precedent to pass laws the could interfere or reverse rulings from the court system. Tony’s controversy has received interest from around the country and ink from the New York Times, prompting Sandlin to argue it’s mostly vocal activists outside of Louisiana who are advocating against his captivity at the truck stop.