GROSSE TETE — How do you get a 550-pound Bengal tiger that lives in a cage at a truck stop to crawl into his newly built pool?
Drop a bloody hunk of mixed, ground horse meat and beef on a corner of the tiger’s new wooden pool deck?
Nope. That didn’t work.
Pour electric blue-colored Dawn dishwashing liquid into the pool water to create a bubble bath?
Nope. That didn’t work.
Even though the temperature was north of 90 degrees Thursday afternoon, Tony the tiger just wouldn’t budge.
“Too many cameras around. He must be nervous. He’s curious though. I’m sure he’ll get in later when everybody is gone,” said Mike Sandlin, Tony’s owner and owner of the Tiger Truck Stop off Interstate 10 in Iberville Parish.
Instead of jumping in right away, Tony paced inside his 3,200-square-foot steel cage, then plopped down in a far corner.
Tony and his newly built pool are about 96 miles from the Louisiana Supreme Court in New Orleans, where justices will decide in weeks or months to either take up an appeal by Sandlin to allow the tiger to remain at the truck stop or allow a ruling by the state’s 1st Circuit Court of Appeal to stand.
If the appellate court’s ruling stands, Sandlin will be forced to send Tony, his “baby,” to another location.
“As long as God provides me breath and money, I’ll keep fighting to keep Tony here,” Sandlin said between patting beads of sweat on his neck with a hand towel.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund, the nonprofit group that wants Tony removed from the truck stop, didn’t seemed impressed Thursday with Tony’s new pool.
“The bottom line is they can put all the bells and whistles they want to out there. You still have a tiger in a truck stop,” Animal Legal Defense Fund attorney Matthew Liebman said.
“Legally speaking, the pool doesn’t change anything,” Liebman said by telephone from California.
The state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge ruled in April that Tony cannot continue to be housed in an exhibit at the Grosse Tete truck stop where he has lived for 12 years.
The appellate court has refused to reconsider its decision.
Sandlin’s truck stop has been displaying tigers for 25 years.
Tony, a 13-year-old tiger, was sold to Sandlin by a Texas exotic animal breeder when the creature was 6 months old.
State District Judge Mike Caldwell ruled previously that a 2006 Louisiana law bars the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries from renewing Sandlin’s permit to house Tony at the truck stop.
The 1st Circuit’s April decision affirmed that ruling.
The appellate panel, however, overturned Caldwell’s decision to allow the Animal Legal Defense Fund to intervene in a civil lawsuit on the side of four Louisiana residents who wanted Tony sent to an accredited wildlife sanctuary.
Caldwell concluded the state agency violated its own rules by exempting Sandlin and Tiger Truck Stop from permit requirements for owners of big cats.
The judge ruled a state permit can be issued only to an individual, not a corporation.
Tiger Truck Stop was the permit holder, not Sandlin, the judge said.
The truck stop’s last annual state permit expired in 2011.
Sandlin contends he has held a federal permit to keep tigers at the truck stop since 1988.
Tony’s ultimate fate hinges on what the state Supreme Court does with Sandlin’s appeal.
In the meantime, Tony has a new pool to cool off in thanks to the man who raised the $3,800 to build it, Joe “Joe Exotica” Schreibvogel.
Schreibvogel, who arrived in Grosse Tete on Wednesday with a construction crew of five, said he raised the money for Tony’s pool from viewers of his daily Internet television show, “Exotic Animal TV Starring Joe Exotic.”
Sandlin has said if he is forced by the courts to eventually send Tony away, he will send the tiger to Schreibvogel’s animal park, G.W. Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Okla.
Schreibvogel said he owns 173 tigers.
“I can tell you that I’ve been out here three times,” Schreibvogel said Thursday afternoon. “And I can tell you this: There is no animal sanctuary in America that has this nice of a cage.”
When asked about concerns for Tony voiced by animal rights activists, Schreibvogel shot back, “If they cared so much for Tony, why didn’t they build him a pool?”
Lynn Dool, a truck driver from Ontario, Canada, said he read about Tony’s story online and stopped by Thursday to get a glimpse of the tiger.
“He seems domesticated. He’s been here for 12 years and there haven’t been any problems. I say let him live here,” Dool said.
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