Repost from Houston Chronicle. Direct link: http://www.chron.com/news/nation-world/article/Caged-The-strange-story-of-Louisiana-s-gas-9236732.php
At a gas station off Interstate 10, you may not be able to put a tiger in your tank, but you certainly can see a live one while topping yours off.
Tony is a real tiger, living in a real cage at a real gas station about 20 miles west of Baton Rouge. And, his fate has been the epicenter of a five-year fight over whether the tiger should be kept in captivity at the truck stop in Grosse Tete, a village of 670 people whose name means “Big Head.”
The Bengal tiger has been living at Tiger Truck Stop for 16 years and spends his day as a roadside attraction that is odd, even by Louisiana standards. The truck stop revels in the notoriety, selling T-shirts reading “Animal Rights Activists Taste Like Chicken.”
But, Tony’s fate – and the fate of any potential replacement – has been the subject of lawsuits and legislation.
Truck stop owner Mike Sandlin has had Tony for 16 years and has said repeatedly he takes good care of the big cat and genuinely cares about the animal’s welfare. Tony lives in an enclosure with toys, shade and water.
In pictures, Tony’s enclosure appears to be cleaner and more orderly than most truck stop bathrooms.
“Tony is happy and healthy at the truck stop in his 3,200-square-foot habitat,” Sandlin told The Times-Picayune/Nola.com.
But, Sandlin’s detractors have gone to court to try and free Tony the Tiger, saying a truck stop is no place for a big cat to live. Gas fumes, noise and little room to roam, they say, are tough on a tiger.
“For us it’s absolutely about the welfare for Tony,” Animal Legal Defense Fund lawyer Matthew Liebman told a Louisiana legislative committee in 2014. (This is the same group threatening to sue Houston billionaire Tillman Fertitta over four white tigers living at the downtown aquarium.)
There’s a Facebook group hoping to free Tony along with multiple petitions aimed at doing the same thing, but thus far, they haven’t had much success. And, Tony has drawn fans from around the country, some of whom have gotten tattoos or painted murals of the cat.
Court rulings against Sandlin were thwarted in 2014 by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal (he of the short-lived 2016 presidential run).
Jindal signed into law a legislative nose-thumbing at animal rights activists aimed at helping Sandlin. In short, the law overturned rulings barring corporate ownership of big cats and other exotic animals and exempts Sandlin from the state’s ban on owning big cats.
None of this impacts the Louisiana State University mascot, Mike the Tiger, and the on-campus enclosure.
“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,” Sandlin told the New Orleans newspaper. “To have these idiots, these nuts that think they know more about tigers than I do — I can’t stand it.”