Tony, the Truck Stop Tiger

Update June 20, 2014: Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has signed “SB 250”—a bill exempting the owner of Tony the Tiger from existing Louisiana law that prohibits private possession of dangerous and exotic large cats. That 2006 law was passed unanimously by the Louisiana legislature and was drafted by Rep. Warren Triche, Jr. specifically with Tony’s plight in mind. Michael Sandlin, owner of the Tiger Truck Stop, pushed for this controversial bill after several Louisiana courts rejected his permit to keep Tony caged as a gimmick in a gas station parking lot. This bill grants preferential treatment to one individual and has outraged Louisiana residents concerned with public safety and drawn criticism from animal welfare advocates across the nation. The Animal Legal Defense Fund believes this law is unconstitutional and plans to immediately challenge its validity.

The Truck Stops Here…

From the stench of fuel to the drone of diesel engines and the isolation of his roadside prison, Tony, a 13 year-old Siberian-Bengal tiger, has endured more than a decade of misery at the Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete, Louisiana. That is why the Animal Legal Defense Fund has taken to the Louisiana courts to free Tony from this truck stop nightmare. We won our lawsuit to prevent Tony’s “owner” Michael Sandlin from renewing his permit.  Sandlin subsequently filed his own lawsuit to overturn the state’s ban on big cat ownership.  ALDF sought to have the case dismissed and is waiting for the trial court to rule.

Sandlin has exploited tigers for over 20 years: buying, breeding, selling, and exhibiting tigers in poor conditions for his own profit. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has cited Sandlin’s truck stop in the past for unsanitary feeding practices; mishandling tigers; and failure to provide veterinary care, shelter from inclement weather, clean drinking water, and knowledgeable employees to care for the tigers. In 2003, Sandlin’s animal welfare violations sparked public outcry, and three tigers were removed. The USDA allowed Sandlin to keep one tiger: Tony. He has been alone ever since.

Life at the truck stop is harmful to an animal with such sensitive hearing and acute sense of smell, says veterinarian Jennifer Conrad, who has cared for captive large cats for nearly two decades. After visiting Tony, she declared he is “in poor condition and needs intervention on his behalf.” In addition to exposure to noise and diesel fumes, Tony is taunted by truck stop visitors. His enclosure lacks adequate enrichment. He has no pool of water to cool off in the blazing heat of the summer. As a result of this stressful confinement, Tony constantly paces in his enclosure, putting him at risk for dangerous and painful veterinary conditions. His suffering demonstrates the problem of privately-owned tigers, whose numbers exceed that of wild tigers. There are less than 500 Siberian and only 2,500 Bengal tigers left in the wild. In their natural habitat, tigers live alone, travel many miles to hunt, and avoid humans.

ALDF Sues to Free Tony

In 2010, ALDF sued the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) for unlawfully issuing Sandlin a permit to keep and exhibit Tony. ALDF was joined by several Louisiana residents as co-plaintiffs, including Warren Triche, the state representative who authored the Louisiana state law banning private ownership of tigers. In November 2011, Judge Michael Caldwell ordered LDWF to revoke Sandlin’s permit and prohibited the agency from issuing future permits. Sandlin appealed this decision and the Louisiana Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in Tony’s case on Tuesday, February 19, 2013.  Sandlin will try to convince the court to reverse ALDF’s victory, but ALDF’s lawyers will be there to urge the court to uphold the trial court’s decision and prohibit Sandlin from continuing to exhibit Tony.

On April 25, 2013 the Louisiana Court of Appeal upheld a lower court ruling in ALDF’s case against the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries for unlawfully issuing Michael Sandlin a permit to keep and exhibit Tony. The Court of Appeals agreed with Judge Caldwell, holding that Sandlin is ineligible for a permit to keep Tony.

On October 4, 2013 the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a petition to review the decision of the Court of Appeal. Although Sandlin could appeal further to the U.S. Supreme Court, the lawsuit raises no issues of federal law, so the Court could not grant review.

Yet, for now, Sandlin continues to exhibit Tony without a permit. LDWF publicly stated it intends to enforce Louisiana law when litigation has concluded–although they could seize Tony now. State law bars Sandlin from owning and exhibiting a tiger because he did not legally own Tony when Louisiana’s big cat ban went into effect, and because Sandlin does not live on the premises where Tony is held captive. After all, who would want to live in a truck stop?

ALDF Intervenes to Defend Big Cat Law

After losing his permit, Sandlin filed his own lawsuit against the State of Louisiana, the LDWF, and Iberville Parish to overturn the state ban on private possession of big cats. This suit flies in the face of national sentiment, public safety, and animal welfare concerns. After the massacre of 48 exotic animals in Ohio in 2011, state and federal bills (like HR 4122) are being considered to prohibit ownership of big cats. Although ALDF was not named as a defendant in Sandlin’s suit, we successfully petitioned the court to allow us to intervene in the case to support Louisiana’s right to safeguard public safety and the welfare of animals like Tony. LDWF and ALDF each filed exceptions to Sandlin’s case, seeking to have the lawsuit dismissed, in a hearing on Monday, December 09, 2013.

Next Steps: We Wait While Tony Paces

The world waits with bated breath while Tony remains trapped at the truck stop. ALDF’s legal battle for Tony has drawn support from high profile advocates like Leonardo DiCaprio and True Blood’s Kristin Bauer van Straten and has galvanized activists around the world. The law firm of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell, & Berkowitz, P.C. is providing pro bono assistance.

We are currently for the trial court to decide if Sandlin’s suit will move forward. Tony’s fate is tied up in the courts, but ALDF is keeping the pressure on.

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