Truck stop tiger bill headed to governor

The future of a 550-pound tiger now is in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s hands.

The Louisiana House gave final legislative passage Friday to a bill that would allow a Grosse Tete truck stop to keep its tiger. If Jindal vetoes the bill, the tiger could end up in a sanctuary.

Debate on Senate Bill 250 started with music. State Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, held his phone to a microphone and played “Eye of the Tiger.”

Soon, legislators were debating whether Tony the tiger needs space to roam, a lake and a girlfriend. The House spent nearly an hour on the proposal after spending less than five minutes on the $24.6 billion state operating budget.

The tiger’s confinement in a cage adjacent to the interstate has pitted animal activists against Tiger Truck Stop owner Michael Sandlin. The dispute has played out in court and at the State Capitol.

At issue in SB250 is whether a licensed owner, who obtained an exotic animal legally and has been in continuous possession and ownership since Aug. 15, 2006, should be exempted from state law that bans anyone other than colleges, sanctuaries, zoos, wildlife research centers and scientific organizations from possessing big exotic cats. The legislation would allow Tiger Truck Stop at the Grosse Tete exit off Interstate 10 to keep its Siberian-Bengal tiger named Tony.

State Rep. Major Thibaut, D-New Roads, said there has been a lot of misinformation about Tony’s welfare. He said a licensed vet cares for the 14-year-old tiger. The tiger has lived at the truck stop since he was 6 months old.

Thibaut said violations cited by animal activists amount to deficiencies, comparing them to a cracked windshield that is easily fixed or grass blowing into a pet’s water bowl. “(Tigers) are not drinking from a Kentwood water bottle in the wild,” he said.

State Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, said the violations have been repeated and willful. She listed problems maintaining wholesome food, uncontaminated water and vet care for Tony.

“That’s what the opposition’s papers say,” Thibaut told her. “I’m not saying it’s true or false.”

Landry said Tony has nowhere to run or exercise. At a Colorado sanctuary, she said, he would have 20 acres, a lake, grass and open space.

Thibaut shot back that the sanctuary’s director also said Tony could get a girlfriend even though the tiger would be sedated, declawed and neutered for the move to the Colorado facility. “Good luck running around those grassy fields looking for a girlfriend,” Thibaut said.

State Reps. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, and Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, both complained that SB250 is not written tightly enough. They said it would allow cat owners in other states to move to Louisiana with their tigers if they owned them at least eight years. Moreno offered an amendment to clarify the language, which would have sent the bill back to the Senate for concurrence on the change. The bill got out of the Senate on a close vote earlier this session after two tries.

“This could gum up the process,” Thibaut said. The House rejected the amendment.

On a vote of 67-26, the bill went to the governor’s desk. Jindal will decide whether to change state law in order to allow Sandlin to keep the tiger.

PETA Foundation deputy general counsel Delcianna Winders said the bill’s final legislative passage marks a dark day for animals and the public.

“The Louisiana legislature should be ashamed of itself for creating a loophole to skirt its own state’s animal-protection laws just so that a truck-stop owner — who has repeatedly violated federal law by failing to provide tigers with adequate veterinary care and safe and sanitary housing and by handling tigers in a way that causes them undue stress or trauma — can continue to use a caged, deprived tiger as a sad ‘mascot.’ PETA is calling on Gov. Bobby Jindal to veto this ludicrous move, and as we have offered for years, PETA stands ready to help transport Tony to the sanctuary that is waiting to give him a real life, where he would finally have acres in which to roam and a real home,” Winders said in a prepared statement.

Sandlin said by email that Tony is where he belongs. He commended the Legislature for passing the legislation to keep the tiger in Grosse Tete.

“Tony the tiger has a 3200 sq.ft. enclosure with a 1600 sq.ft. grassy play area. He has the best feline diet and veterinarian care that money can buy. He has an air conditioned den, a tire swing, bolo balls, a pool, water misters, rubber mats to lay on, and one-on-one attention from people that love & care for him. The truth is that removing Tony from the only home he has ever known and his handlers will likely kill him. If we do not stand up to animal RIGHTS terrorists now, it could be your animals tomorrow. Sorry, LSU’s Mike the Tiger, they want to free him too,” Sandlin wrote.

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