State appeals court hears case of Tony the truck stop tiger

An animal rights group and several individuals had no legal right to file suit in 2010 challenging a Grosse Tete truck stop's state permit to house a 550-pound tiger at the facility, an attorney for the truck stop and its owner told a Louisiana appeals court Tuesday.

But a lawyer representing the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the other plaintiffs countered that Tony poses a threat to the "safety and welfare of the citizens" and that those very citizens, as taxpayers, had the right to contest the permit.

A three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal heard the arguments at LSU's Paul M. Hebert Law Center. The panel took the arguments under advisement without indicating when a decision would be issued.

Jennifer Treadway Morris, who represents Tiger Truck Stop and owner Michael Sandlin, argued that state District Judge Mike Caldwell erred in the fall of 2011 when he barred the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries from issuing any new permits to the truck stop to keep Tony there. The facility's last annual state permit expired at the end of 2011.

Caldwell concluded the department violated its own rules by exempting Sandlin and Tiger Truck Stop from permit requirements for owners of big cats. The judge ruled that a state permit can be issued only to an individual, not a corporation. Tiger Truck Stop was the permit holder, not Sandlin, he said.

Morris asked the appellate court panel to reverse Caldwell and lift the injunction against any new state permits for the truck stop to continue housing the tiger.

She stressed to 1st Circuit Judges Randolph Parro and Jewel "Duke" Welch and retired Judge William Kline that there are no abuse, cruelty or safety issues at the truck stop and noted that the facility has a federal permit since 1988 to house a tiger at the facility.

"Twenty-five years, your honors," Morris said.

Tony has been at Tiger Truck Stop for more than a decade.

Department of Wildlife and Fisheries attorney Daniel Henry likewise argued that the animal rights group and the individual plaintiffs had no legal standing to sue the department over its permitting of the truck stop to keep a tiger there.

"So an individual can't question what Wildlife and Fisheries does?" Welch asked. "How about if they feel you're not following the law?"

Henry replied that the department properly and lawfully issued permits to the truck stop.

Brandy Sheely, an attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the four individual plaintiffs, said the department's own rules state that the permit has to be issued to an individual, who must live on the site. She said Sandlin lives 5 miles away from the truck stop.

"You don't live there. It's a gas station," Sheely argued, adding that the department decided to "bend the rules" for Tiger Truck Stop and Sandlin.

Despite the truck stop's contention to the contrary, she alleged, safety is an issue.

Sheely said she could be pumping gas at the truck stop off Interstate 10 in Iberville Parish when the driver of an incoming car has a stroke and rams the cage, releasing the tiger.

"I have a tiger who hasn't had live meat in years who's probably pretty interested in me," she said.

Sandlin, in a suit he filed against the state and Iberville Parish in January 2012, is challenging the constitutionality of a 2006 state law that banned private ownership of large and exotic cats. The state law includes a grandfather exception that allows people to keep exotic cats as pets as long as the animals were legally owned before Aug. 15, 2006, when the law went into effect.

ALDF contends Tony was not legally owned by Tiger Truck Stop before that date because a 1993 Iberville Parish ordinance prohibits anyone from owning wild, exotic or vicious animals for display or exhibition. Sandlin's suit also says the ordinance is unconstitutional. He argues the ordinance does not have an exception for persons with proper permits under federal law.

LSU law professor Paul Baier, who also represents Sandlin and his truck stop, argued Tuesday to the appeals court that the parish ordinance conflicts with state law. The state law trumps the ordinance, he said.

Baier said the state's issuance of a permit to the truck stop was "eminently reasonable."

The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has said previously that Tony is the last privately owned big and exotic cat in the state. Sandlin has said the tiger is well cared for, healthy and happy.