©2011 Kathy & Breawna Smith. All rights reserved.
Silence is something my child knows nothing about, something that was not part of her make-up, but silence certainly followed what became a turning point in her life. Silence was the cold eerie, hollowness that followed her visit to a caged tiger in Louisiana. The silence that followed us home that evening remained with us the next day and existed until her resolve was once again restored with a determination to help her friend Tony. It was the silence of an exuberant child after the cold hard facts are realized.
The bond between this child and big cats goes way back, perhaps before birth in some unforeseen heaven, some place where her heart and soul were joined in the animal kingdom and a special gift was given to the world. Not that I, her parent would put her on that type of pedestal, but others have witnessed the insights and events that follow a vision, dream or thought. She has always talked and walked with a different perspective on wild cats. Genuinely concerned with the caging, petting and exploiting of these cats she would rebel at attempted interactions with them until she was old enough to teach us the difference and express her views confidently.
That is what brought us to the whole “Tony Situation” as family and friends refer to it. After learning about the 10 year old tiger in a cage at a truck stop no less, Breawna relentlessly proceeded to involve anyone in her quest to visit Tony and speak to his owner. She was appalled that a big cat would be treated as a roadside attraction for the amusement of passing tourist just like long ago places displayed animals. Her father and I were nonetheless surprised when a planned holiday trip was rebuked in favor of the Tony visit and plans were started. We had previously learned that she would continue on any quest regardless of the obstacles and wanted her to be fully informed and to realize that such a large undertaking as a conversation with Michael may not happen and if it did may not end well on her part.
The trip did require research and Breawna spent days on the computer, all the time not believing that any of the situations could be as bad or true as exposed. Many of her statements reflected that someone could not be treating a tiger that badly. Once she told me that she had been dreaming about Tony and was sad that he could only see out of his chain link prison, she also mentioned on occasion that he was lonely and tired. She insisted that she would video some pieces and be his voice. Her friends at Big Cat Rescue would benefit from those videos once taken. All the points she wanted to cover were written down and she reviewed them often, even with her teacher at school.
Discovering the , whole story about Tony and investigating what she could do and how she could effectively be his voice, did not make a difference in her perspective and I was faced with a determined child who would just not let it go. After weeks of begging to go, pressure to let her help, the persistence continued until a trip was finally planned and a life changing journey began.
Breawna designed a “Free Tony” t-shirt with the help of some school friends and commissioned an airbrush artist to make the shirt only one week before the trip.
We left home the day after Thanksgiving 2010; Black Friday took on a new meaning for our family that day. The trip started at 3am with an anticipated arrival to the truck stop off I-
Gross Tete around 12 noon. It’s important to note that after a balmy 80 degree
day we started westward from Florida in 70 degree temperatures that morning.
Prior to us leaving and during the trip she voiced over and over the thoughts that also concerned me…
· What to do if they tell you to leave? Can I stay by Tony’s cage?
· Will they arrest us for being there talking about how Tony feels?
· What if they touch me or hit me or throw something at us?
· Will they have cameras around too?
Initially she had wanted to set up a mock cage to spend the weekend in; to raise awareness of how Tony felt, but after the research we thought it would be better to do a quick visit.
We traveled with an energized 10 year old that chattered all the way. Traveling with Breawna involves multiple stops due to some joint issues she has, so it was slow going and took longer than expected. Halfway there the temperatures started to drop and rain pounded us. Still we continued, but a clothes buying stop was necessary once the temperatures reached the 50s. Armed with new coats and sweatshirts we were on the road again. Breawna purchased a sweatshirt with butterflies adorning the front to symbolize the freedom for Tony that she was fighting for. Butterflies also were prevalent on her Tony t-shirt for the same reason.
Finally we arrive to the area and begin looking for the exit long anticipated for. The temperature was 39 degrees and a steady rain continued to be a nuisance. It was 3pm in the afternoon and we realized that we had taken longer than we wanted and that Breawna was already tired and offered to get a place to stay the night and return early the next morning. You can only imagine the conversation the followed as we were reminded that spending money in Louisiana was not allowed and that a wait overnight to visit Tony just would not do.
The exit we were seeking finally came into view and the child in the back seat could hardly sit still. Up on her knees she saw for the first time the cage that Tony calls his home. There was excitement as she sees Tony for the first time, which was quickly followed by silence. We park by the west side of his cage to prevent the employees in the snack shop from detecting us while we were filming. I looked into the backseat to see Breawna silently crying. Her face a witness to the heartbreak she was experiencing. Her voice laced with shock as she explains that she needed a few minutes to herself, can we go check the cage out. Knowing that she will finish what she came to do, we take the situation in as she gathers her thoughts. 15 or so minutes pass and I need to know that she is O.K. Dry eyed now she is ready to face the demons she came to conquer and the visit begins. She wanted to spend some time just observing him and talked to him in a soothing quite voice, telling him that she was there to help him. She asked him to stop pacing and come to stand by the cage because she wanted to start taping.
The rain and cold temperatures took its toll on her ability to speak consistently. In addition we noticed as did she that a man exited the snack shop and was standing not far from the cage watching while he smoked a cigarette. Her constant vigilance on him is evident in several shots. She never asked to quit and never faltered as I continued to worry that we would be discovered and asked to leave. Filming at his cage took 30 or more minutes and involved several takes of the different passages that she prepared. Due to her concerns and the situation we found ourselves in, we encouraged her to use her notes regardless of her pleadings that she had it under control. Taping had to be finished before we were discovered and I was worried about the attention we were receiving from his employees. We were then surprised by her request to go see if Michael Sandlin was able to talk to her. She insisted even after we spoke to her about the risk while getting warm in the car. So we find ourselves in the snack shop being told that he was not around and would not be that evening. We noticed a t-shirt with a beautiful tiger and stopped to check it out. That shirt ended up being the t-shirt designed to make fun of animal activists. Breawna was absorbing the meaning of the shirt when a truck driver enlightens her to what it meant. The same man who had watched us film at the cage continued to watch us in the store. With a disgusted look at him, she flicks her hair and states that she is ready to go to see the stuffed cat over the salad bar. With no disrespect intended, I believe she had just enough of the shirt and the situation and she was angered that she was denied a chance to speak to Sandlin.
We had learned that a white tiger was displayed over a salad bar in the restaurant, and in her unbelieving mind she could not imagine that it was true. Upon entry to the restaurant she saw Selena and noticed how filthy the place was. She mentioned how disgusting it was and that they even put fake eyes in her, but she could tell how beautiful she had been. As we are waiting at the counter by the door because another attempt to talk to Sandlin was requested she noticed a CD with his picture. As we read that it was Christian music something snaps in that 10 year old and she can’t fathom how he could be a Christian and cage a big cat like that. It’s time to leave; she is done with waiting because no-one has acknowledged us anyway. How do I answer the questions about how could a person who believes in God keep a big cat as a pet in a cage.
We continue to walk around to see what Tony has to look at each day and discover oil and gas on the pavement, she mentioned that she wants to stand there and hear and smell what it’s like to live here and after a few minutes wants to go say good-by. That’s when we discover that he is still pacing and that the cold has settled in. It’s getting dark and the cars are still lining up despite the cold and rain. Other children are viewing the tiger and my child stands lonely at the chain link with the fallen look of failure on her face, she really thought that she would be able to talk to Michael and change his mind. The day has taken its toll on her body but more on her spirit and she bids good night and good by to Tony, promising him that she will not stop, will not give-up till he is free.
We leave around 4:30pm that cold, rainy November day with a much more mature child, one that fell silent as soon as we hit the highway and we drive home in silence. Even stopping later to eat we could not encourage her to share her thoughts. We arrive home early in the morning and carry her to bed. The following day I expected to be actively questioned and was surprised at the depressed child I was faced with. She wanted to hide and stayed in bed all day. She needed time to absorb all the ugliness and face the demons that haunted her. What haunts me the most about the whole trip was the profound silence that followed us home that day.
I am pleased when on Sunday she comes back to the world with more resolve to help not only Tony but all big cats in the same situation. If only more people could see through the eyes of a child and resolve to change things because they know no other way but the way they want it to be.
There comes a time as a parent that you must make a choice to allow your child to discover that bad does exist and to grow from their experiences. I would not change a thing and have been questioned on why I allowed her to do what she did. But these people don’t live with a persistent child that relentlessly pursues what she believes in. I don’t want to limit her experiences just because they are not convenient and pleasant. Even while protecting her I have to let her go to help her to grow into what she’ll one day become. Her experiences with Tony’s freedom have given her confidence in what she does; can and will make a difference. She sums it all up in a story she wrote about her experience in that it may not end the way you expect, but doing something for a good reason is better that doing nothing at all.
Would I do it again? You bet…there is no way to stop this charging spitfire once she sees injustice toward animals especially big cats, so I expect our future will be filled with journeys and adventures in helping these cats she so loves.