Senate says Tony the Tiger can stay

It took two tries but the Louisiana Senate approved legislation Tuesday that would allow the Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete to keep Tony the tiger.

But Tiger Truck Stop owner Michael Sandlin said after the 20-18 vote that he realizes that with a little more than two weeks left in the session, getting a legislative remedy for a problem that has kept him in court for several years could be difficult.

“We got a lot of work to do,” Sandlin said. “All we can do is our best.”

The Senate voted 18 for and 19 against on April 28. But with the winning vote Tuesday, SB250 now heads to the House of Representatives.

The session ends June 2.

Bob Morgan, a Denham Springs attorney representing Sandlin, said he will be talking to House members, trying to find a representative to handle the legislation.

“We learned a lot,” Morgan said, adding that when the bill is vetted by a House committee, their presentation will be more focused and more detailed than it was in the Senate.

“We know what the questions are now,” Morgan said

Sandlin said Tony is safe for the time being.

The state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries have agreed not to move the 550-pound Siberian-Bengal tiger until the lawsuit he has filed against the state is resolved, Sandlin said. Sandlin alleged in court that the state is discriminating against him as a private exhibitor. He says he has the same license for housing an exotic animal as LSU has for its mascot, Mike the Tiger, and the Baton Rouge Zoo has for its tigers. But state law does not allow him to exhibit exotic animals.

Sandlin has exhibited tigers at his truck stop since 1984. He got Tony from his father when the tiger was six months old. The cat has lived in Grosse Tete for the past 131/2 years.

Sandlin says he spent several hundred thousand dollars hiring lawyers, lobbyists, media advisors and others to help fight the effort. “From a business standpoint, Tony the Tiger is more of liability,” Sandlin said, adding that initially the point was to attract customers passing by on Interstate 10.

“But it’s beyond that now,” he said, adding that he is attached to the tiger and angered at the efforts that have been made to keep him from keeping it.

Should Sandlin lose his lawsuit, and this legislation not pass, the tiger would be removed to a habitat near Tampa, Fla.

Senate Bill 250 would allow a licensed owner, who obtained the exotic animal legally and has been in continuous possession and ownership since Aug. 15, 2006, to be exempted from state law that bans private owners. The exception would apply retroactively and fit Sandlin’s Tiger Truck Stop situation.

State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, said the bill basically would allow Sandlin to do what the courts and state law say cannot. “What’s the point of having laws when they’re going to be subjectively applied?” Morrell said.

After the vote, Sandlin said the suit to which Morrell referred was between Animal Legal Defense Fund and the state. Sandlin only intervened in the lawsuit.

Republican State Sen. Rick Ward III, of Port Allen but who grew up near the truck stop in Grosse Tete, sponsored SB250. He said the tiger lives in a 3,200 square foot enclosure with an air conditioned section. “He’s very comfortable,” he said.

State Sen. Troy Brown, D-Napoleonville, said Tony the Tiger, lives about 20 miles west of the LSU campus, where Mike the Tiger is exhibited in an enclosure. The next step after barring Sandlin from exhibiting an exotic cat would be to remove Mike the Tiger.

“We could start heading down that road potentially,” Brown said. He did not vote on April 28 but cast a “yea” vote on Tuesday.