For the past three decades, Michael Sadlin has had a live tiger on display at his truck stop in Grosse Tete, Tiger Truck Stop.
Within weeks after purchasing the truck stop in 1987, the first tigers arrived at the truck stop and in the years since, he has had six adult tigers and 10 cubs.
About a month ago, though, a deeply saddened Sadlin said goodbye to 17-year-old Tony, likely the last live tiger he’ll have at the truck stop. The terminally ill tiger had to be euthanized, something the big cat lover had never had to do before.
“I’ve never had to do that, put one down,” he said. “It was so hard.”
Later, Sadlin got emotional trying to explain how he felt about Tony’s death.
“It was really tough,” he said. “I’ve had to part with them before but one that was around that long – that was hard. He was such a good boy.”
While Sadlin says he has another tiger that could be delivered and on display at the truck stop within 24 hours, the challenges and battles – both social and legal – make that prospect unlikely.
The idea of having a live tiger at the truck stop was originally his father’s idea, not his, Sadlin said. His father had been in the service station business in Texas for years and guided his son toward the Grosse Tete location.
“From the start, I’ve had tigers here so this is the first time the truck stop doesn’t have a tiger living there,” he said from his home near Ramah. “I think it’s tragic and I think most of the people of Grosse Tete are feeling the same way.”
“It’s part of what has defined Grosse Tete for the last 30 years,” Sadlin continued.
In the beginning, owning the truck stop was challenging for the then-24-year-old with $1.000 to his name. Sadlin used that as seed money to sell stock in the business.
“Needless to say, it’s really hard to start a business without any capital,” he said. “…It was a struggle.”
“It took 14-, 16-, 18-hour days but God blessed me and He saw me through,” Sadlin said. “I made it.”
“Then the animal rights people started going after me,” he said. Sadlin said for him, the fight over whether he could keep his tigers or not was never about the money but about the welfare of his animals.
“I wasn’t perfect, I was never professionally trained about how to care for tigers, my experience was all hands-on,” he said, adding he’s always believed his tigers have always been well cared for, “I’ve always wanted to see that my animals were taken care of.”
The tigers Sadlin kept at the truck stop reportedly were well kept, with fresh meat three times daily, playthings like volleyballs and other means of entertainment provided, like a tire swing Tony loved to attack and swing on while clinging to it with his claws.
Later, he said Tony enjoyed human contact, but only occasionally and only on his terms.
“He liked to get petted, especially behind the ears,” Sadlin said. “When he wanted to get petted, he would lie down with his back toward the bars.”
“When he did that, I knew he wanted me to come over and love on him,” he said, although he’d had others that were more people-friendly, like Rainbow.
“She was really sweet,” Sadlin said. “She would lick all over me. Rainbow would even bring me cubs, let me take them from her and hold and pet them and wait patiently for me to finish, then take them back.”
She was also had one of the longest lifespans of the tigers that have lived at the truck stop, he said.
“Tony wasn’t the first one that I’ve had that had that kind of longevity,” Sadlin said. Two of the first he had, Toby and Rainbow, lived to the age of 19. The pair was also the most prolific, parenting six litters for a total of 10 cubs.
He gave one of the cubs to an LSU School of Veterinary student, two were donated to the Zoo of Acadiana, he shipped another to a truck stop he owned in Mississippi and others were traded to circuses and other breeders. Sadly, some were either stillborn or died shortly after birth of natural causes, Sadlin said.
Sadlin has lost other tigers he’s owned to natural causes, most notably the only white one he’s ever had, Selena. Another tiger on exhibit at the truck stop in his early years with the business, she died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 3 and a half, he said.
After her death, Sadlin let a taxidermist preserve her, so visitors to the truck stop’s restaurant could still enjoy her beauty.
“I agonized over that decision,” he said. “If I bury her then that’s it, but if I have her mounted then people can continue to enjoy her and admire her for many years to come so I think I did the right thing.”
Sadlin said he decided to do the same with Tony. His carcass is buried near the enclosure where countless thousands came and admired him.
“Not only did the animal rights people not get their hands on him but he’s still there and he’ll be there forever,” he said.
“It’s just been an amazing experience, the good and the bad,” Sadlin said.