Bill moves forward to let tiger stay put

After wrestling with the issue for more than an hour, a Louisiana House committee advanced legislation Wednesday that would allow a Grosse Tete truck stop to keep its tiger.

Several members of the House Natural Resources Committee said they’ve heard about the issue at the State Capitol and at home.

“I’ve been lobbied very hard on both sides. My wife’s been lobbied and instructed me how to vote,” said state Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero.

At issue 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 of Interstate 10 to keep its 550-pound Siberian-Bengal tiger named Tony.

Ultimately, the committee voted 10-6 in favor of advancing Senate Bill 250 to the full Louisiana House for debate after testimony that delved into whether tigers need friends and what their food preferences are.

“I’m a tiger whisperer,” Tiger Truck Stop owner Michael Sandlin said. “According to Tony, animal activists and legislators who side with them taste like chicken.”

The bill hasn’t been an easy one for legislators. The Louisiana Senate tackled the bill twice before advancing it. Now the bill heads to the full House with only days left in the legislative session.

The legislation’s author, state Sen. Rick Ward III, said Tony lives in a larger home than he, himself, shares with his wife and three children. The tiger has a 3,200-square-foot facility with an air-conditioned den, a deck and a pool in the parking lot of an interstate-adjacent truck stop.

Ward, R-Maringouin, said hunting dogs commonly sleep in kennels.

“Think beyond this tiger ... The next step down the road is our hunting dogs, our mascots,” he said.

Animal activists accused Sandlin of trying to circumvent the courts by running to the Legislature. “Why are we here? ... He lost in court,” said Carter Dillard, director of litigation for the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

Sandlin said he’s accumulated $500,000 in legal bills fighting to keep a tiger at his truck stop. He said he understands the need for restrictions that legislators put in place for exotic cat ownership several years ago.

“I understand the Legislature wanted to limit private possession. You don’t want tigers chained up in people’s back yards. You don’t want tigers kept in garages at people’s homes, ... and I can understand that and appreciate that,” he said.

What sets Tony the tiger apart, Sandlin said, is that he gets the best vet care and diet that money can buy. Removing the tiger to a sanctuary would subject him to tranquilization and stress that could kill him, he said.

Bob Fenet, an attorney for the truck stop, said Tony is the first domino. He said animal activists next will focus on college mascots and horse racing.

“This isn’t just about Tony the tiger. They want Mike the tiger free, too. They’re against caging. They’re against hunting ... My opinion is these people are nuts,” Sandlin said.

Dillard said legislators should let the courts do their job and not allow Tony to become the icon for a Louisiana tiger. He said that role belongs to LSU’s mascot, Mike.

“This bill’s going to replace Mike with Tony, a tiger that lives in the parking lot of a gas station with big rigs rolling by,” he said.

Pat Craig, executive director of Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado, said legislators need to determine what is best for Tony. He said his sanctuary has a 34-year history of rescuing lions, tigers, bears and other exotic animals. Contrary to popular opinion, Craig said, tigers like living with other tigers if they’re not hunting their own food.

“Having friends would be a wonderful thing for (Tony),” Craig said.

Craig said a habitat is where a tiger can freely roam. Each animal at his sanctuary gets a 20-acre habitat and shares space with others of the same species, he said.

State Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Meraux, raised concerns about Tony dying from the stress of moving to a new home. “The last thing I want to see is something happen to the tiger. He’s been there 14 years,” he said.

Craig said he’s never lost a carnivore during transport. He said animals have died after reaching the sanctuary, but only because they already were dying of renal failure.

“This is a tough vote,” Garofalo said.

State Rep. Sam Jones objected to advancing the bill. Jones, D-Franklin, said if one exception is made, more animal owners will ask legislators for exceptions. On the vote to decide the bill’s fate, state Rep. Jerry “Truck” Gisclair, D-Larose, tried to cast himself as a “maybe.” Told that wasn’t an allowed vote, Gisclair voted in favor of advancing the bill. Five legislators sided with Jones, not enough to sideline the legislation.

Voting FOR keeping a tiger at a truck stop (10): State Reps. James Armes, D-Leesville, Bubba Chaney, R-Rayville, Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, Ray Garofalo, R-Meraux, Jerry “Truck” Gisclair, D-Larose, Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, Eddie Lambert, R-Prairieville, Jack Montoucet, D-Crowley, Clay Schexnayder, R-Sorrento, and Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette.

Voting AGAINST SB250 (6): State Reps. Robert Billiot, D-Waggaman, Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, Johnny Guinn, R-Jennings, Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, Sam Jones, D-Franklin, and Chris Leopold, R-Port Sulphur.

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