Big cat brought truck stop fame
By CHANTE DIONNE WARREN
Advocate staff writer
Published: Sep 20, 2008 – Page: 7B – UPDATED: 12:05 a.m.
Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete, named for its famous Bengal tiger exhibit, has survived hurricanes, a violent tornado that ripped through the town in 1989, competition from newer truck stops and heat from animal rights activists.
Since Michael Sandlin, 46, opened his truck stop in 1987, his business has not only dealt with policy and regulatory changes, but he has helped the small communities around him survive tough situations.
When lines of people filed outside his truck stop a day after Hurricane Gustav, Sandlin and his crew prepared to function as one of the few places where residents and travelers could turn for gas, food and supplies in the wake of the storm, he said.
“So far, so good, thank the Lord. I’m glad to still be standing and back open,” Sandlin said. “We rode the storm out in the truck stop, and we worked here 72 hours without sleep.”
When it comes to truck stops, Tiger raises the bar.
“It’s the kind of place the community can depend on. It’s a safe haven,” Sandlin said.
He said the store has never had a break-in, and he attributed that to Iberville Parish sheriff’s patrol officers.
The truck stop was used as a command post in 1989 after a series of destructive tornadoes that killed two people in Grosse Tete. The tornadoes missed the truck stop, where military police, National Guardsmen and others assembled. “The town relied on us for gas and food,” Sandlin said. Favorite dishes were red beans and alligator sausage.
Other events have not been as favorable toward Sandlin’s truck stop business, but he has endured.
When video poker machines were approved at truck stops in 1991, it brought considerable competition. Court battles ensued, Sandlin said. “What that has done to the business, because there are only so many dollars out there, you feel like some kind of moratorium should have been put in place to control it,” he said.
Sandlin said his truck stop offers 15 video poker machines that his business relies on.
“Luckily, we survived it,” Sandlin said.
His prized tiger exhibit has brought both “political and regulatory red tape,” Sandlin said. But “it’s been more of a joy than a disappointment,” he said.
Tony the tiger has helped bring fame to the truck stop. “It has given us national recognition. We’ve been on the Travel Channel a number of times.”
Sandlin, a Houston native, said his family has raised Bengal tigers for years, and seven tiger cubs have been born at the truck stop.
Animal-rights activists have objected to the exhibit, and in 2003, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered Sandlin to limit the number of tigers there, based on allegations of inadequate care and dilapidated quarters. Three tigers were taken to sanctuaries. Sandlin says the tigers were well cared for.
If Tony should become ill or die, Sandlin must abide by a new Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries policy that adds big exotic cats to the list of animals that cannot be privately owned except under limited conditions.
“I’m angry about it. If I was mistreating the tiger or doing a bad job, then it would be different. I feel like I was targeted,” Sandlin said.
But life goes on.
“I haven’t gotten rich, but it has made for a good living,” Sandlin said of his family’s business. “We try to be as friendly as we can and provide the best service.”
Chante Dionne Warren is a general assignment reporter for The Advocate. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.