A tale of two (really big) kitties

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A tale of two (really big) kitties

March 18, 2009
By Adrian Hirsch

The Iberville Parish Council again considered Tuesday exempting the Tiger Truckstop in Grosse Tete from a 1993 ordinance limiting private ownership of dangerous animals. Having raised and exhibited tigers for 20 years, truckstop owner Michael S. Sandlin sought the exemption to comply with state regulations.

During its February meeting, the majority of council members approved the exemption, which was then vetoed by Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr. In the past month, council attorney Barry Marionneaux and truckstop attorney Joseph B. Dupont Jr. collaborated on a revised ordinance, which the council approved. The new ordinance exempts Michael Sandlin from the 1993 legislation but requires specific improvements to enhance the tiger’s environment, care and the community’s safety. Receiving the council’s exemption is the first step in meeting the state’s criteria to keep Tony, the tiger Sandlin has owned since 2000.

Before the Legislature passed Act 715 in 2006, Louisianans could import, possess, sell and exhibit lions, tigers, bears and other large exotics with little oversight from the state. The ownership, purchase, importation or sale of exotics is now illegal. However, a provision allows Sandlin and others whose ownership of exotics pre-dates the legislation to keep those animals by adhering to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ stringent regulations designed to protect public safety and the animals’ welfare and support conservation.

“Louisiana had a lot of foresight and broadly wrote the 2006 legislation to exempt accredited zoos, research centers and universities but not other facilities,” explains Beth Preiss, the Human Society of the United States (HSUS) director of Exotic Pets Campaign.

The council’s proceedings attracted both national attention and animal activists, who argue the truckstop’s inhumane conditions warrant Tony’s release to a sanctuary.

The Iberville council’s controversy has hardly been the only exotic animal story making the evening news: A “pet” serval (an African wildcat) on the loose terrorized Uptown New Orleans. A 200-pound Connecticut chimpanzee mauled one of his owner’s invited guests. A Barbary lion at a private refuge attacked a Kansas man. And, in their farewell performance two weeks ago, Las Vegas illusionists Siegfried and Roy again shared the stage with Montecore. Seven years earlier, the same captive-born, hand-raised white tiger attacked and nearly killed his long-time trainer Roy Horn on stage.

“Although it is still legal to own a tiger in Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Ohio, Nevada and West Virginia,” Preiss says, “tigers shouldn’t be kept as pets. There’s a danger to the public and the animal, and never having an incident is no guarantee that something won’t happen in the future. There have been nine people killed nationwide since 2001.” All of which proves captive breeding cannot eliminate millions of years of evolution and instincts honed to promote survival of the fittest in the wild. Furthermore, as recent attacks by smaller, more domesticated pets — pitbulls — have demonstrated: Just because it is legal for anyone to possess a particular animal, private ownership is not always in the best interest of the community.

Still, HSUS calculates the number of captive tigers living in the United States is roughly equivalent to those living in the wild. The ease of acquiring a tiger — especially on the Internet — belies the difficulties of living with an animal who's genetically programmed to range more than 100 miles a day, swim rivers and bring down prey twice their size. So, even captive tigers are better suited to life in a natural setting at an accredited sanctuary with room to roam rather than confined behind the metal bars of a barren concrete and grass bunker inhaling car and diesel exhaust.

So, why would the council not enforce an ordinance it adopted to protected the public? Sales tax revenue? Jobs?

To be sure, the truckstop is a major employer in the area. And despite its country store, café, 24-hour tire service, souvenirs and 15 video poker machines and repair shop, Tony undoubtedly remains its main attraction.

On Feb. 8, trucker Carrie Chambers of Georgia shared her opinions on savetony.com: “There is nothing wrong with Tiger Truck Stop keeping the tiger. Me and my boyfriend were on the road in a big truck. That tiger was the only reason why we stopped at this truck stop. I wanted to see him. I have never seen a tiger before. I have not been out of the state of Georgia until my boyfriend. So let other people who are like me have the woderful [sic] chance that I have had by seeing the tiger. I would love to see him again when I go back on the road.”

Not that the affiliation between tigers and gasoline has always been a bad one. Esso, the forerunner to Exxon, ran the popular “Put a Tiger in Your Tank” advertising campaign from 1945 until the early 1970s. However, rather than exploiting the big cats, big oil took action to prevent their extinction with its Save the Tiger Fund. Since 1995, ExxonMobil has contributed more than $15 million to protect and restore wild tiger habitats in Asia.

Closer to home, Sandlin seems to be banking on a big victory. Despite a number of citations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the years, his Web site solicits donations for new tiger habitat and a new tiger — young female to add to the exhibit.

Regardless of the Grosse Tete tiger’s fate, privately owned exotic and dangerous animals are on their way to becoming extinct in Louisiana. Tony is the last cat of his kind. According to Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ Press Secretary Bo Boehringer, all other big cat owners voluntarily relocated their animals after the passage of the legislation.

If one day there is no longer a truckstop tiger in the shadow of the interstate, travelers will still be able to get their fill of big cats near Baton Rouge. Only 20 miles away, Mike the Tiger lounges in a $3 million dollar, 15,000-square-foot, Italianate enclosure complete with live oaks, waterfall and a veterinarian onsite. And soon, as many as eight tigers will join Siamang gibbons (big, black, howling monkeys) and Asian waterfowl in the Baton Rouge Zoo’s two-acre Realm of the Tiger exhibit. In south central Louisiana, there will always be a Bengal by you.


For the cats,

Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL  33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457


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