Louisiana's Last Truck Stop Tiger
Louisiana's Last Truck Stop Tiger
Louisiana law currently prohibits the commercial exhibition of exotic cats, but the battle to free the last truck stop tiger drags on.
Tiger Truck Stop owner Michael Sandlin has been breeding and exhibiting tigers for over 20 years. But, in 2008, it seemed that all of that was coming to an end, when the Tiger Truck Stop found itself on the wrong side of Louisiana's changing laws regarding the commercial display of exotic animals. Animal rights activists, who had maintained that the tiger lived in deplorable conditions, rejoiced, but their celebrations were short lived.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries informed Sandlin, in 2007, that it was enacting new regulations banning the private ownership of exotic cats. Sandlin was offered the opportunity to apply for a permit that would allow his only remaining tiger, an adult Siberian-Bengal named Tony, to be “grandfathered in” as an exception to the new law. Officials backpedaled, however, upon discovering that Sandlin was in violation of a local ordinance in Iberville Parish, which prohibited the public display of wild and exotic animals. The local ordinance had been in effect since 1993, but was never enforced. The LDWF issued Sandlin a citation, informing him that he had 30 days to find the tiger a home outside the state of Louisiana.
After some legal pushing and shoving, the Iberville Parish Council opted to change its ordinance to accommodate Sandlin. Once the local ordinance was no longer an issue, the LDWF issued Sandlin a permit, allowing him to keep the tiger at his truck stop.
This was a crushing blow to animal rights activists like Sky Williamson, who have been fighting for years to remove, and relocate the tiger. In petitions, blogs, and interviews, they have argued that a concrete and steel cage, located in close proximity to fuel pumps, is no place for a tiger. They cite exhaust fumes, incessant noise, and Sandlin’s history of animal welfare violations as evidence that the tiger's living conditions are detrimental to its well being.
Between 1997 and 2007, the USDA cited Tiger Truck Stop, on at least 16 separate occasions, for numerous violations, including failures to provide drinking water, veterinary care, and food free of contaminants. Structural problems were also a recurring issue. In 2001, an inspector warned, “This total neglect is resulting in rapid deterioration of [the] structural soundness of [the] entire facility and may result in future escapes.” Three years later, the USDA forced Tiger Truck Stop to pay $2,500 in fines, and informed Sandlin that his exotic cat exhibition could thereafter include no more than two animals. Three of Sandlin's four tigers were subsequently relocated to a sanctuary in Kingston, Tennessee. One of them, a female named Rainbow, had been suffering from a form of posterior paralysis for over a year, and according to the USDA, had not received any veterinary treatment.
In 2007, when the LDWF enacted regulations prohibiting the private ownership of exotic cats, the truck stop's remaining tiger became irreplaceable. While the truck stop has been issued permits to keep the tiger, they cannot breed or replace him.
Michael Sandlin claims that the USDA violations are old news, and that his facility is presently in compliance with all applicable regulations. He insists that Tony is a beloved pet, and that the tiger would suffer greatly if removed from the truck stop. “No one knows better on how to take care of Tony than I do,” he says. He also argues that with wild tiger populations declining, captivity is a valid form of conservation.
Critics are dismissive of Sandlin’s arguments. They explain that as a mixed breed, Tony would be of no value to conservation projects aimed at saving the species. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, “If captive or artificially propagated stock is to be used,” for reintroduction efforts, “it must be from a population which has been soundly managed both demographically and genetically, according to the principles of contemporary conservation biology.” A breeding process that blends the genetic material of Siberian and Bengal tigers does not maintain the integrity of each subspecies, and therefore produces tigers that are not suitable candidates for such projects.
Activists also reject Sandlin’s claim that he is best equipped to care for the tiger. They insist that Tony would have a much higher quality of life at one of the accredited sanctuaries that have offered to provide the tiger with a new home. Big Cat Rescue, an exotic feline sanctuary in Florida, has stated that it would provide the tiger with open spaces, ponds to swim in, and “the best [care] that can be offered for a captive tiger.” Sandlin has repeatedly insisted that Tony will never be relocated to Big Cat Rescue.
In a recent statement, Sandlin compared his critics in the animal rights community to “domestic terrorists,” and said that any signs of stress exhibited by the tiger have been caused by animal’s rights activists, who he claims have thrown rocks into the tiger's cage.
Williamson calls that claim, “comical to say the least.”
With the state permit that allows Sandlin to keep the tiger up for renewal next month, both sides are seeking public support. Sandlin's website asks visitors to help “save Tony from the wild,” while animal activists are circulating petitions, and encouraging people to contact the LDWF, and Louisiana officials, about the case. A petition on Change.org, urging the LDWF not to renew Sandlin’s permit, has accumulated more than 10,000 signatures.
While actively campaigning against the permit's renewal, Williamson is not optimistic. She claims officials have had numerous opportunities to legally remove the tiger, but have failed to do so. “In 2003 all of the tigers were supposed to go,” she says, “but Sandlin threatened to sue, and the USDA cowered down to him. They told me that they are very understaffed, and money is tight, so they had no choice.” Williamson says that the tiger could have been removed several weeks ago, when a violation of the insurance provision of the Iberville Parish ordinance was brought to the attention of Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso, Jr. “But, instead of removing Tony, he tells Sandlin that he has two weeks to straighten it out, or the tiger's gone.”
If the permit is renewed, she says, “It just means we keep fighting for his freedom. That we just need to keep remembering what his life must be like daily, and that we are all that he has.”