Tony’ the tiger’s fate lies with court

Deidre Cruse

The courts will decide the fate of “Tony” the tiger, the roadside attraction at the Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete who has gained the attention of both animal rights activists and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Truck stop Michael Sandlin filed suit in 18th Judicial District Court last week and won a temporary injunction to stop Wildlife and Fisheries from requiring to move the tiger to an approved facility. Iberville Parish, which has an ordinance against keeping wild, exotic, vicious animals and reptiles, also was named as a defendant in the action.

District Judge Robin Free has set a hearing for 9:30 a.m. Monday (December 29) to hear arguments on a permanent restraining order.

Meanwhile, the issue got a brief hearing at the Iberville Parish Council meeting last week. Council Chairman Eugene P. Stevens Jr. allowed an animal rights spokeswoman and Sandlin three minutes each to state their cases.

Independent animal “rescuer” Sky Williamson, backed by animal rights activists from around the country and by local residents, called on the Iberville Parish Council last week to enforce the parish ordinance.

“The tiger needs to be in a different environment for its own health and safety, and for the protection of the public,” Williamson told the council.

She said Iberville Parish had created a local ordinance to protect animals, and argued that Sandlin had accumulated a list of violations of U. S. Department of Agriculture regulations over the past 20 years.

“There is no way Sandlin will ever met the requirements...” Williamson said.

She argued the tiger needed to be cared for by professionals, and that the public should be protected from potential tiger attacks.

“Please do not give in to animal rights advocates who think they know what is best for the tiger,” Sandlin urged.

He said the tiger has a proper diet, “the best veterinary care,” and  has been “only an asset to Iberville Parish and the community.”

Sandlin said the tiger does draw customers to the truck stop, and that the animal is beloved by his 35 employees and customers, alike.

“Do not let Tony be taken away from the only home he has known, and the people who love him,” Sandlin said.

After the brief remarks, the representatives of the two sides got into a shouting match outside the council chambers.

John Robbins, a Humane Society member from Metairie, said a woman who attended with Sandlin’s party had grabbed the purse of another Humane Society member, Phaedra Wolber of New Orleans.

Robbins said when he stood between Wolber and the other woman, a man accused him of attacking his wife.

The incident was over by the time the Plaquemine Police got to the scene to escort Williamson to her car.

In a brief interview before the council meeting, Williamson, a cable television representative, told the POST/SOUTH she had come to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and had been here since then.

She said she began her campaign after she happened to stop at the truck stop and was overcome by the smell of the tiger’s cage.

“Before I got out of my car, I could smell feces,” she said.

She said the USDA in 2003 had proposed to take was poised to take four tigers Sandlin maintained at the truck stop, but had agreed to let him keep the one.

Last summer, the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries passed new regulations on ownership of big cats.

In his petition to the court, Sandlin’s lawyer said Sandlin met all the requirements, except one that requires him to comply with other federal, state or local laws.

The Iberville Parish ordinance outlaws keeping exotic vicious animals for display or exhibition. Sandlin argued the ordinance hasn’t been enforced at his business since the law was adopted in 1993.

Tiger Truck Stop, however, is located within the Village of Grosse Tete, which Mayor Michael Chauffe said has a local law governing vicious dogs, but nothing addressing exotic animals. State laws would supercede any local ordinance, anyway, the mayor said.

Mayor Chauffe said representatives of Sandlin’s side had appeared at the last Grosse Tete Board of Aldermen meeting seeking a resolution to ask the Parish Council to consider allowing the tiger to remain at the truck stop.

Chauffe said he agreed to ask the Parish Council for consideration if Sandlin provided proof that he has satisfied all the requirements of Wildlife and Fisheries. He said he has not gotten any documentation.

“My main concern is the safety and well-being of the tiger,” the mayor said, noting that the animal had never posed a threat to the community. “I don’t live far form the truck stop. When [the tiger’s] mad, he gets so loud he roars. A lot of people do stop to look at the tiger.”