Tony the Tiger can stay at truck stop

Animal rights groups vow to sue over bill

Tony the Tiger can stay put in his quarters at a Grosse Tete truck stop, at least for now.

Gov. Bobby Jindal quietly signed into law Senate Bill 250, granting an exception for the tiger and immediately sparked promises of legal action by animal rights advocates. The bill, which the governor sent to the Secretary of State’s Office as part of a huge batch of signed legislation, now is Act 697.

Legislators wrestled with the bill, struggling with whether the tiger should remain at a truck stop or move to an animal sanctuary. Animal advocates pointed to federal citations against the truck stop, including one for failure to provide veterinary care to an arthritic tiger. Tiger Truck Stop’s owner, Michael Sandlin, countered that he only has one tiger now, and the animal has a swimming pool, an air-conditioned den and a grassy play area.

Sandlin said Friday that the signature means he successfully knocked down propaganda and lies put forth by animal rights groups. “The governor, possibly one running for president, is not afraid of domestic terrorists,” Sandlin said.

However, the governor’s action did not quiet the uproar over the tiger’s living conditions at an interstate truck stop. The Animal Legal Defense Fund vowed to challenge the new law in court, launching yet another chapter in a protracted legal battle over the 14-year-old tiger.

Matthew Liebman, senior attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said the organization will file a constitutional challenge next week in the 19th Judicial District. He said the bill violates Louisiana’s constitutional ban on the Legislature passing a local or special law.

“It’s quite unfortunate that Gov. Jindal and the Legislature decided to grant preferential treatment to a single owner,” Liebman said.

SB250 was one of the lingering issues still on the governor’s desk nearly three weeks after the legislative session ended. Animal rights groups pressured the governor to veto it, while Sandlin asked Jindal to keep Tony in the only home he’s ever known.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Rick Ward III, applauded the governor’s decision Friday.

“I’m glad it’s done and taken care of and Tony can live out the rest of his life there. (I’m) happy for those involved who were for it,” said Ward, R-Maringouin.

At issue in SB250 was 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 allows Tiger Truck Stop at the Grosse Tete exit off Interstate 10 to keep its Siberian-Bengal tiger named Tony.

Sandlin told legislators during the session that he has spent $500,000 on legal bills fighting to keep Tony. Some of the litigation still is in play.

SB250 only allows Sandlin to keep Tony. He cannot obtain more tigers, even after Tony dies.

Sandlin is suing the state for discrimination. He wants the option of buying a companion for Tony or a successor.

“He is an older tiger. When he expires, we would be able to get another tiger to replace him,” he said.

Follow Michelle Millhollon on Twitter, @mmillhollon. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/ politicsblog/.