on June 20, 2014 at 11:19 AM, updated June 21, 2014 at 10:33 AM
Gov. Bobby Jindal has signed a bill allowing the owner of Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete to keep his 14-year-old Bengal tiger, Tony, as a roadside attraction. The fight over the fate of the tiger will press on, however, as the animal rights group who fought against the legislation has already voiced plans to file a challenge of the law in court next week.
The truck stop’s owner, Michael Sandlin, said he learned Thursday (June 19) evening that the governor penned his signature to Senate Bill 250 on Wednesday.
“I’m very happy, very relieved that the threat is gone that Tony gets taken,” Sandlin said Friday. “It’s been a long, hard battle. It’s been no fun being made a villain — called an animal abuser all (over) the Internet.”
The bill drew scrutiny from animal rights activists across the country who claim the state should remove Tony from what some describe as a diesel-fumed cage off of noisy Interstate 10, located about 20 minutes west of Baton Rouge.
Sandlin, however, has maintained that he genuinely cares for Tony and the all tigers he has housed at the truck stop, where 13 cubs have been born. Tiger Truck Stop, which sits off Exit 139 overlooking I-10 — about 15 miles west of Baton Rouge, is comprised of gas pumps, Tiger Cafe, a “country store,” a suite of tiger-themed video poker games and a federally licensed zoo exhibit. Tony is happy and healthy at the truck stop in his 3,200-square foot habitat, Sandlin said. And transporting the tiger to some unknown location could possibly cause Tony distress or even threaten his life — a point disputed by opponents of the bill.
Those lobbying to seize the tiger from his truck stop, he said, don’t have the welfare of Tony at heart but are motivated instead by a radical animal rights agenda and making money for its lawyers by engaging in lucrative litigation.
ADLF lawyer Matthew Leibman on Friday called Sandlin’s suggestion of his group’s ulterior motives a common “scare tactic” to distract from the real issue.
“For us it’s absolutely about the welfare for Tony,” said Leibman, harkening to recent testimony delivered by the Louisiana State Capitol from Pat Craig, the director of a Colorado animal sanctuary who agreed to take in Tony. “Why Sandlin hasn’t accepted it, I don’t know.”
The bill’s sponsor, Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, claims Sandlin has always taken good care of the exotic animals and tried to follow the law, but animal activists groups they postured as “outsiders” from California meddled with the state permitting system in order to take Tony away.
Sandlin grew emotional when he spoke Friday about what would have happened to Tony had the legislation failed.
“The threat of him being drug away to some strange place — never petted, never sweet-talked to again…I would not stand by and see that happen to that tiger,” he said. “To have these idiots, these nuts that think they know more about tigers than I do — I can’t stand it.”
The legislation signed by Jindal attempts to resolve issues related to the truck stop’s ownership of Tony, which has been the subject of legal battles involving Sandlin, ALDF and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, for years.
ALDF claims they filed the lawsuit against wildlife and fisheries because they wanted Louisiana to follow its own laws. That lawsuit, which resulted in the state pulling Sandlin’s permit, ultimately triggered the legislation.
Ward filed the legislation at Sandlin’s behest after the Louisiana 1st Circuit Court of Appeal ruled in 2012 that Sandlin’s permit to keep Tony was invalid because he is not Tony’s legal owner. Last fall, the Louisiana Supreme Court let that decision stand after Sandlin sought a review of it. Tiger Truck Stop Inc. has owned Tony since 2000, but the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, apparently following pressure from animals rights groups, promulgated new rules in recent years requiring the owner to be an individual, not a corporation.
The rules applied to the state’s exotic cat ban, which took effect in 2006. That law was apparently unclear whether Tiger Truck Stop’s ownership of Tony could be grandfathered in, since he was at the truck stop prior to the ban. The new law makes a specific exception to the state’s 2006 exotic cat ban by allowing Sandlin to keep Tony until the tiger dies.
Both the ALDF and Sandlin indicate Jindal’s signature won’t end the fight over Tony’s fate, as well as Sandlin’s right to own other tigers after Tony dies.
Leibman said ALDF will file suit, likely early next week, challenging the constitutionality of the law. The new law, which with Jindal’s signature becomes Act 697, violates a constitutional prohibition against “special laws” by giving preference to an individual to serve a special interest that does not serve the public, he said. They also plan to challenge the retroactive aspect of the law, which he said illegally seeks to reverse a decision legislatively that was made by the court.
“Governor Jindal has just signed a bill into law that violates his own state constitution. Mr. Sandlin repeatedly lost in the courts so he found a way to make his own one-man law,” Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells said in a statement. “We will not let Tony suffer because of this back-door sidestepping of the legal system.”
Though relieved to have the burden lifted of Tony being seized, Sandlin said he continue with his discrimination lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the 2006 exotic cat ban and will likely seek further legislation excepting private owners from the exotic cat ban.
Leibman said Sandlin’s indication that he plans to seek further legislation to let him have more tigers is indicative of what happens when laws are passed to grant individuals special privileges. “He’s going to keep asking for more and more, and we intend to fight it.”
Despite animal rights advocates’ efforts to convince the governor to issue a veto, Sandlin said after the House overwhelmingly passed the legislation on May 30, he was pretty sure Jindal would either sign it or let it turn into law without a signature.
“I’m glad that he did sign it,” Sandlin said. “He stood up for personal freedoms. He stood up for small business. And he stood up for keeping Tony the tiger safely home.”
The bill becomes officially effective August 1, though the result is essentially inaction of the state by letting the truck stop continue to exhibit Tony.