7:23am UK, Wednesday October 29, 2008
Jon di Paolo, in Louisiana
Service stations on US motorways are usually bland collections of chain burger restaurants, petrol stations and motels so similar it is almost impossible to tell them apart.
But if you turn off the Interstate 10 highway in the village of Grosse Tete, outside Baton Rouge in Louisiana, you get something very different – a family-run business that boasts exotic wildlife as an attraction.
At the Tiger Truck Stop, you can eat a large, tasty home-cooked meal, get new tyres, refuel, play video poker and get close to a real live Bengal tiger.
Restaurant manager Sharland Lasseigne says the signature dishes, such as red beans and rice with alligator sausage, jumbo butterfly shrimp and chicken-fried steak draw a loyal following from miles around.
The association with tigers started when her father, Wendell Sandlin, who already operated a chain of service stations, won a cub in a poker game in the 1970s.
The family ended up successfully breeding the animals at the service stations, and at one point had five of them, but changes in the law meant they had to cut down the numbers, and now there is only one.
Tony, who eats a total of 10lb of chicken a day, is going to be the last tiger that the family is allowed to keep after local authorities further tightened regulations on exotic animals – a move Sharland says was specifically aimed at them.
“We get animal activists coming in here sometimes,” she says. “I’ve had to run a few out of here before.
“The parish wants us to have all kinds of permits to keep the tigers.
“I don’t understand why they’re on us so bad, other than the fact that somebody doesn’t like us. It’s probably the animal activists who’ve done it.”
She rejects the charge that it is unfair to keep the big cats in a cage at a petrol station.
“The tigers don’t know anything else,” she said. “They’re used to the sound of the trucks. My husband feeds Tony and he’s well taken care of.”
One of the previous residents, Selena the Siberian tiger, was stuffed after she died, and now gazes down at the restaurant from a perch above the buffet bar.
Next to her is a small television, which was tuned to Fox News’ coverage of speeches by Senator Obama and John McCain during my stop.
Sharland has not yet decided who to vote for. “My whole family is Democratic, and they would lean towards Obama,” she says.
“But I don’t like what I hear about his religion and I heard he doesn’t salute the flag. I don’t like the idea of a president who doesn’t salute the flag.”
Some of the diners appear interested in the speeches, but others turn away from the screen and do not want to talk about the election when asked.
One who doesn’t mind talking is trucker driver Edward Nunnery, from New Orleans, who is philosophical about it. “Whoever it is, I’ll have to support him. He’ll be our President.”
On the next table is AJ Lasseigne, Sharland’s cousin, who runs a trucking company.
He too is unwilling to be drawn on his political preference, although there is one topic that animates him – immigration. He tells me that if illegal entrants into the country are not stopped, it will lose its freedom and identity.
I tell him that immigration is a big issue for voters in the UK and Europe as well. He nods, before pointing out that US residents are better able to protect themselves against any kind of hostile influx.
“Here, we’ve all got our own rifles and shotguns, so if anybody tried anything, we’d be able to stop them,” he says.
“If you don’t have any guns and they come at you, well, they’ve got you like pigs in a pen. If they want to kill you, they can kill you.”
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org