Tony, the Truck Stop Tiger

The Truck Stops Here

Tony, a Siberian-Bengal tiger, endured more than a decade of misery at the Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete, Louisiana. Living at an isolated gas station parking lot, with the stench of fuel and the drone of diesel engines, is harmful to an animal with such sensitive hearing and an acute sense of smell, says veterinarian Jennifer Conrad, who has cared for captive large cats for decades. According to Conrad, near the end of his life, Tony was “in poor condition and needed intervention on his behalf.” He was taunted by truck stop visitors and his enclosure lacked adequate enrichment. As a result of this stressful confinement, Tony constantly paced, putting him at risk for dangerous and painful injuries. The Animal Legal Defense Fund fought hard to free Tony from this truck stop nightmare.

Tiger Truck Stop owner Michael 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 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.

ALDF Sues to Have Tony Freed

In 2010, ALDF sued the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) for unlawfully issuing Sandlin a permit to keep and exhibit Tony. We were  joined by several Louisiana residents as co-plaintiffs, including Warren Triche Jr., 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 tried to convince the court to reverse ALDF’s victory, but on April 25, 2013 the Louisiana Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s ruling in ALDF’s (and Tony’s) favor. The Court of Appeal agreed with Judge Caldwell, holding that Sandlin was ineligible for a permit to keep Tony.

Constitutional Challenge

In June 2014, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed Act 697 into law, thereby exempting Sandlin from the 2006 law that prohibited private possession of dangerous and exotic large cats. That 2006 ban was passed unanimously by the Louisiana legislature and drafted by Triche specifically with Tony’s plight in mind. Sandlin 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. In response, ALDF filed a lawsuit on behalf of Triche and other Louisiana residents and taxpayers against Sandlin and the Tiger Truck Stop, the State of Louisiana, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, and the LDWF for violating the Louisiana Constitution by passing a law that exempts a single individual from existing state public safety and animal welfare laws and grants Sandlin special privileges despite his flagrant legal violations

We Intervene 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 2006 ban. The Animal Legal Defense Fund successfully petitioned the court to allow us to intervene and support Louisiana’s right to safeguard public safety and the welfare of animals like Tony. We asked the court to dismiss Sandlin’s lawsuit, and we are waiting for the trial court to rule.

We Fought While Tony Paced

Tony’s 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.

Sandlin continued exhibiting Tony without a permit. LDWF publicly stated it intends to enforce Louisiana law when litigation has concluded. In April 2017, the Animal Legal Defense Fund submitted a letter to the USDA requesting an inspection of Tony amid reports that his health was declining to determine whether veterinary care was required. We submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the inspection report and requested expedited processing which was denied. We filed a lawsuit against the USDA for its refusal to recognize Tony as an “individual” and expedite the request. Recognizing animals like Tony as individuals would allow the public to quickly access information vital to ensuring an animal’s safety and wellbeing.

Our  legal battle for Tony has drawn international and high-profile support, including from advocates like Leonardo DiCaprio and True Blood’s Kristin Bauer van Straten. Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell, & Berkowitz, P.C. is providing pro bono assistance. Tony’s fate was left to the often slow moving court system, but we kept the pressure on.

Tony’s Tragic Passing

In October 2017, Tony tragically passed away while in Sandlin’s possession despite the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s best efforts to free him. Our litigation to uphold the constitutionality of Louisiana’s Big Cat Ban does not end with Tony’s death. We will continue to fight Michael Sandlin’s attempts to overturn the Big Cat Ban and prevent him from subjecting another tiger to Tony’s fate. Further, our case against the USDA arguing that Tony should be recognized as an “individual” will continue.

For over six years, we fought for Tony both in and outside of the courtroom, and we are saddened that Tony never experienced the freedom and natural environment he deserved. Though Tony is no longer with us, we will continue to fight to protect other big cats in his memory.

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