June 15, 2011 2:19 am ET
In May, responding to a lawsuit by Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) against Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF), State District Judge Michael R. Caldwell ruled that the agency must grant no new ownership permits to Tiger Truck Stop of Grosse Tete after the current one expires in December.
However ALDF hopes to convince Caldwell to revoke the current permit, so that the ten-year-old, 550-pound Siberian-Bengal can be removed sooner from what the group says are unhealthy, unsafe, and uncomfortable conditions in a roadside exhibit at the Interstate 10 business, and relocated to a suitable big cat sanctuary.
Recently the judge denied Tiger Truck Stop owner Michael Sandlin's request that he be allowed to participate in court proceedings about Tony.
Q&A WITH MICHAEL SANDLIN – Part Three of Three
ANIMAL POLICY EXAMINER (APE) You sound pretty determined to keep Tony there at Tiger Truck Stop. Why is that, Mr. Sandlin?
MICHAEL SANDLIN: Well, I like Tony, and I make sure that he’s very well taken care of, and I don’t want him to go. So yes, I’m determined, and nobody likes to be pushed. I have retired cats before. I had two cats that lived in this exhibit for 18 years and had 13 cubs. I retired them to Tiger Haven. It’s outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. From what I understand the lady told me they lived another four years there and died of natural causes.
One of the first cubs that was born there at the Tiger Truck Stop, Shere Khan, he’s still alive and living there at Tiger Haven.
And two of our cubs, or cats, Sugar and Sassy, are located at the Zoo of Acadiana in Broussard, Louisiana.
I’ve traded tigers with other breeders—you know, the cubs—and I sold one to a gentleman in Florida that had a traveling animal show and had a lot of other big cats. From getting to know him, from being a truck driver, I knew that the cat would be taken care of. Her name was Gloria.
So I mean it’s just a lot of good things that have happened with the tigers and I hate to see him [Tony] go, you know?
APE: Why did the tigers you mentioned—the ones that went to the sanctuaries, for instance the one in Tennessee—why did those need to go to sanctuaries?
SANDLIN: Well, at that time the two of them, the mommy and the daddy, Toby and Rainbow, were about 19 years old. Rainbow had had 13 cubs, and she showed that. I mean, the skin on her belly hung down low. She had developed some arthritis in her back legs as a result. She didn’t walk crippled or anything but she just walked real easy on her back legs.
And so in an exhibiting situation, people would go up and they would see Rainbow, and they would see how big she was, and the skin hanging down underneath, you know, made her look so big, and she walked kind of easy. They didn’t understand that she had had 13 cubs and was 19 years old, which is very old for a tiger, so it was time to retire Toby and Rainbow due to old age and not exhibit them anymore.
And then Shere Khan, who was one of the first cubs born at the truck stop, he was a fully intact male tiger, and I had just gotten Tony at that time. And Shere Khan and Toby, although they were father and son, were enemies, you know, they were two males, and they didn’t like the idea of having to share the exhibit with each other and we had to be very careful to not let them get into direct contact with each other because they would fight and one of them would be injured.
It just made managing the exhibit, moving the tigers around for cleaning and that sort of thing, it made it a hard situation. And so I made the decision to retire Shere Khan as well, and just keep the youngest male, and that was Tony. And that’s the tiger that I have today.
APE: Who pays for the care of the tigers you gave to those sanctuaries? Is that something that’s handled by donations from their donors? Or did they ask you for help with that?
SANDLIN: Well, actually I called them to relocate Toby and Rainbow and Shere Khan, and you know, it was all friendly and above the table. But from what I understand, after they came and got Toby and Rainbow and Shere Khan, they plastered it all over their website that they rescued them, even though they did not rescue them. I called them so that they could bring in some donations.
And yes, these people depend on donations to feed and take care of their cats, So again, I understand their quest for money. My question for these groups is they take in so much money, where does all that money go? Because it’s not being spent on their animals.
APE: You mean the group that you gave those tigers to?
SANDLIN: I have no idea. I’m talking specifically about some other groups. I’m not going to— As far as I know, Tiger Haven seems to be a good place. They seem to be taking good care of their animals, so I’m not placing them in the same category as Big Cat Rescue of Tampa, Florida, or PETA that kills 97% of the animals that they take in, or The Humane Society of the United States that takes in millions of dollars every year, then rescues animals and dumps them on local shelters without giving them a penny to help take care of the animals that they dump on them.
No, I don’t have anything against Tiger Haven, other than that they were a little dishonest about stating that it was a rescue when it wasn’t.
APE: You were not required, though, to give them any funding or any money or any payment to take care of those tigers?
SANDLIN: No. I was not required to do that.
APE: You’re very upfront about the fact that you have Tony as an attraction and that he does help you pull in some business. Do you think that your business would suffer if Tony were taken away?
SANDLIN: I think the business would suffer. But at this point I’m hoping that prior to relocating Tony in the event that he ever became ill or something went wrong, or hopefully best case scenario due to old age, that between now and then that I can do some kind of major expansion and maybe put in a tiger museum as an attraction, and that at that point in time be able to replace Tony and the live tiger exhibit with some other attraction. So that’s kind of what I’m working toward. The fact that there’s a death sentence on the exhibit and once Tony is gone I can’t get any more tigers, I need to think for the future and try to move into something else.
APE: So you’re thinking about a tiger museum?
SANDLIN: Right. It would display all of the pictures and stories and all of the paraphernalia that I’ve accumulated over the years, and even go further and try to promote saving the tigers’ natural habitat in the wild, and educating the public on tigers in captivity versus tigers in the wild, and just all kinds of stuff that I could put in that museum.
It would be a good thing to do, number one, and number two, it would be an attraction that would remain for the business long after Tony is gone.
APE: That would be quite an ending for this story.
SANDLIN: Well, I think that’s a good thing to try to work toward. Unless there’s some kind of change in Louisiana law that allows people to own exotic animals, I think that’s where we have to go.
I’d be glad if the law changed, but if not, I think that’s what’s in front of me. It would be good to, number one, do some kind of major expansion and number two, I think the museum’s a good idea whether there’s a tiger there or not. But I think it would be a way—once Tony’s gone and there are no tigers to still promote and educate the public—to promote tigers’ survival in the wild and that sort of thing. And maybe be supportive of some of the good organizations that are out there.
APE: If you do succeed in keeping Tony there, are you saying that— I might have misunderstood, but did you mention that you might be doing an expansion of his habitat?
SANDLIN: Well, I mean, you know that’s always a possibility as well. I think Tony’s habitat is adequate, but there are always things that can be done to improve it. There’s a lot of things that can be done to improve his current situation.
It’s a shame that all this money is having to be spent on attorneys and fighting with these people. But that seems to be what they’re interested in doing. Outside of the Louisiana Humane Society, which in October brought out some pumpkins and chew toys and meaty bones, and I allowed them to give them to Tony, they are the only ones that have ever spent one red cent or lifted one finger to do anything that benefited Tony.
All of these other groups simply want to spread their lies and raise their money, and take in the donations from exploiting Tony that way, and aren’t concerned about doing anything to help Tony in his current situation. They simply want to take him away from me.
The fact that Tony is there because of the idea to have an attraction—I know it’s something that they have accused me of, but it’s not something that I’ve ever denied. You know, you can come to Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete and you can see Tony for free. If you want to go to some of these other sanctuaries then you can pay big money and go in and see their cats, you know? Go figure. But Tony doesn’t depend on the next donation to be fed. He doesn’t have to compete with 150 other big cats for attention or veterinary care or anything. He has one-on-one attention and he’s in a good place right where he’s at.
APE: Thank you, Mr. Sandlin. Really appreciate your spending this time with us today.
SANDLIN: I appreciate your letting me tell my side of the story.
Please check this page again soon for reactions to this interview from animal rescue organizations.button above.
To voice your opinion about the future of Tony the tiger, contact Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
For previous articles about Tony the tiger case please click on 'Animal Policy Examiner' above.
A cofounder of AnimalBeat.org, she holds a B.A. in Environmental Science Studies and a lifelong interest in animal issues.