Parish Council votes to keep tiger in Iberville

Deidre Cruse
OBLIVIOUS TO DEBATE...Tony, the Bengal tiger who is a roadside attraction at the Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete, takes a nap as the debate about his future draws national and international attention on a petition website. The Iberville Parish Council will hold a public hearing on the tiger issue at 6 p.m. Tuesday on the second floor of the Courthouse.

The Iberville Parish Council voted overwhelmingly last week to adopt a “grandfather clause” that might allow Tony the Tiger to stay in Grosse Tete, drawing cheers from supporters of Tiger Truck Stop owner Michael Sandlin.

Moments later, animal rights activists cheered Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr., who promised to veto the measure unless truck stop owner Michael Sandlin to improve the tiger’s living conditions to protect both the public and the animal.

“I want to make sure the president understands, we have the right to override a veto,” Parish Councilman Salaris Butler of Seymourville said to further applause from the Sandlin camp.

The council voted 10-1 to amend a parish ordinance, passed in the early 1990s, against keeping wild animals to allow Sandlin to retain Tony for the tiger’s lifetime, after which he would not be allowed to replace him. Sandlin’s attorney, Joseph B. Dupont Jr., proposed the change.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries cited the parish ordinance as the reason Sandlin was denied a state permit for the tiger. When Sandlin sued Wildlife and Fisheries over the issue in December, animal rights activists became more involved.

“When do we get to the point that something like the tiger needs to be respected,” David W. Nance of Big Cat Rescue asked at a public hearing before the council vote.

Nance spoke for animal rights activists who want Tony sent to an animal sanctuary such as the one Big Cat Rescue operates in Florida.

The world’s population of tigers has shrunk from 100,000 several years ago to a few thousand today, Nance said. Three hundred of them live at Rescue’s sanctuary in Florida.

“Tony doesn’t live at the truck stop,’ he said.

Nance said that in the event the truck stop had to be evacuated because of a hazardous materials spill, the tiger would not be evacuated and could die there.

Although Sandlin claims on his website that the tiger has the same veterinarians as LSU mascot Mike the Tiger, Nance said, blood has been seen inside Tony’s cage, indicating health problems.

Independent animal rights activist Sky Williamson has cited numerous violations of care over some 20 years.

“All I see is a group that wants to take Mr. Sandlin’s tiger,” said Dupont, who spoke for his client. “...Mr. Sandlin’s tiger is obviously well cared for, treated as a member of the family.”

The attorney said Sandlin maintains a proper enclosure and provides excellent veterinary care for the tiger. Sandlin also has, as required, a tranquilizer gun and a “kill” rifle, he said.

From what he has heard, Dupont said, the animal rights groups want to put Tony into “this other cage with 300 tigers,” rather than stay in Grosse Tete.

“That’s the only place he’s ever known is his entire life,” the attorney said.

“I visit the tiger on a daily basis, and I’ve never seen him distressed,” Councilman Matthew H. Jewell of Maringouin said. “...There’s no proof of abuse. There’s no hard copies as proof of violations.”

Jewell said there have been some “agency write-ups that have been corrected.”

Sandlin has worked in the parish and hired local people for 20 years or more, the councilman said.

“If the intent was there to take the tiger, they would have taken the tiger in 1992,” when the former police jury passed the ordinance in question, Jewell said. He said the ordinance came abut because a resident wanted to prohibit an animal being kept in a back yard in her neighborhood.

Councilman Howard Oubre of Plaquemine said he visited the tiger in Grosse Tete for 45 minutes recently, and saw around 100 people visit the tiger during that time.

“The tiger looked healthy, in good condition,” Oubre said. “I don’t see no reason [sic] to move the tiger.”

“If we started with a clean slate today, we would not allow the tiger to stay,” said Councilman Edwin M. Reeves Jr., the only councilman to vote against the change. “...I think that particular tiger deserves better, and I will not vote for that ordinance.”

The vote was 10-1 to add the grandfather clause on a motion by Councilman Timothy J. Vallet of Rosedale and seconded by Jewell. Council Chairman Eugene P. Stevens of Plaquemine did not vote, and Councilman Mitchel J. Ourso Sr. was absent from the meeting.

Parish President Ourso told the POST/SOUTH on Monday he is trying to arrange a meeting with Dupont to discuss his conditions for Sandlin to keep the tiger.

“Hopefully, they can be met,” Ourso said. “I do not want to veto this cat. The council has spoken clearly. However, I want what is best for the public safety and welfare of the cat.”

The parish president would not specify the provisions he is seeking, but said he was not expecting Sandlin to spend $3 million to replicate the habitat built for Mike the Tiger at LSU.

“Hopefully, the small, minute conditions that I have will be met,” Ourso said. “If they can be met, I will be tickled to death and put this tiger in the history books.”