Owner may sue to keep ‘Tony’ in Grosse Tete cage
By GREG GARLAND
Advocate Westside bureau
Published: Nov 21, 2008 – Page: 1B – UPDATED: 12:05 a.m.
GROSSE TETE — State wildlife officials have given the owner of Tiger Truck Stop 30 days to remove a live tiger from the premises, cheering animal welfare activists who have fought for years to close the exhibit.
But the truck stop’s owner, Michael Sandlin, said Thursday he is considering filing suit to block the state from forcing him to get rid of the 8 1/2-year-old Bengal tiger named Tony.
“We’re going to fight for our right to have a tiger here,” he said.
The order to remove the tiger came in a letter to Sandlin, dated Monday, from Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert J. Barham.
The letter says a 1993 Iberville Parish rule prohibits private ownership of “wild, exotic, vicious” animals for exhibition.
The ordinance means Sandlin does not qualify for a required state permit that would allow him to keep the tiger.
“The tiger presently located on the premises of Tiger Truck Stop must be legally removed from the premises to a Department-approved facility or out-of-state within 30 days from the date of this notification,” Barham wrote.
Sandlin has been cited frequently over the years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for failing to meet the minimal standards of care for animals used in exhibition. The most recent citation was issued in July 2007 for failing to clean cages to maintain adequate sanitation.
Sandlin denies he has failed to properly care for Tony and other tigers he has kept on the site.
Holly Reynolds with the Coalition of Louisiana Animal Advocates, expressed delight when told of the state’s order.
“That’s wonderful news,” said Reynolds, whose group has battled the truck stop for several years.
She credited a Melbourne, Fla., woman, Sky Williamson, with waging an aggressive behind-the-scenes campaign in recent months to get the 550-pound tiger removed and placed in a healthier and more suitable environment.
Williamson, who has been working as a cable company contractor in Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, said she began working the phones and sending out e-mails ever since seeing the tiger for the first time in January.
“I will never forget that day,” Williamson said. “It took me down to my knees. There were 15 big trucks lined up nearby, all of them running. The smell was horrid. There was feces all over the cage.”
Sandlin said the state’s letter ordering him to remove the tiger caught him by surprise.
Tony had been “grandfathered” in under a state law that took effect in 2007 that prohibits individuals after that date from owning exotic and dangerous animals, Sandlin said.
However, Sandlin said, the new law required him to meet certain requirements and to obtain a state permit to continue keeping the tiger. He said he was working to comply so he could obtain the permit.
Among other things, he said, he bought a tranquilizer gun and a “kill gun” and had a microchip implanted in the animal so it could be tracked if it ever got loose.
“We’ve exhibited tigers for 21 years without a problem,” Sandlin said.
The Iberville Parish ordinance surfaced after state wildlife officials asked the parish if there were any local laws on the books dealing with the keeping of exotic animals.
“Nobody ever noticed it before,” Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr. said.
Ourso said the parish government has received many calls through the years from animal welfare advocates complaining about the care of tigers at the truck stop. But he said the issue is regulated by federal and state authorities.
Sandlin said he hasn’t decided yet what action he would take.
“We have to make a decision whether to relocate the tiger or file a lawsuit to stop them,” he said. “We’re leaning toward filing a lawsuit. We think it’s very unfair.”
Sandlin said he exhibited tigers at a truck stop in Houston but moved to Grosse Tete in 1987 after the Texas city passed a law prohibiting him from keeping tigers there.
“I’m really totally surprised that the state of Louisiana is bowing to pressure from animal rights activists,” Sandlin said. “They’re talking about taking away my right to have the cat. &hellip It’s just another right we’re going to lose.”
As recently as 2003, Sandlin had four Bengal tigers caged at the truck stop.
He agreed to give up three — keeping only Tony — to settle complaints from federal regulators that he wasn’t properly caring for the animals. He agreed to pay a $1,000 fine and repair the exhibit but admitted no guilt.
Beth Price, director of the Exotic Pets Campaign for the Humane Society of the United States, said tigers are dangerous wild animals and should be kept only in well-run zoos, not by private individuals.
According to the Humane Society, 12 people have been killed by captive big cats since 2001.
Price said the tiger needs to be placed in a different environment for its own health and safety and to protect the public.
“Hopefully this is a happy ending for this animal,” she said.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org