Lawsuit challenges constitutionality of Tony the Tiger law

A new chapter has begun in the protracted legal battle over the fate of a 14-year-old, 550-pound Bengal tiger kept in a roadside enclosure at a truck stop in the Iberville Parish town of Grosse Tete.

Less than a week after legislation was signed into law allowing Tony to remain at Tiger Truck Stop, a former legislator and two Louisiana residents filed suit asking a judge in Baton Rouge to strike down what they contend is an unconstitutional special law that gives preferential treatment to the tiger’s owner.

Former state Rep. Warren Triche Jr., who sponsored Louisiana’s 2006 big cat ban, and residents John Kelleher and Juliette Dauterive are suing the state, Tiger Truck Stop and its owner, Michael Sandlin.

Despite pressure from animal rights groups to veto it, Gov. Bobby Jindal signed Senate Bill 250 into law last week. The bill, which granted an exception for Sandlin’s tiger, is now Act 697.

Legislators wrestled with the bill, struggling with whether Tony should remain at the interstate truck stop — the only home he’s ever known — or move to an animal sanctuary.

The national nonprofit Animal Legal Defense Fund is involved in the suit filed Tuesday and assigned to state District Judge William Morvant. The ALDF claims SB250 violates Louisiana’s constitutional ban on the Legislature passing a local or special law.

“The Animal Legal Defense Fund will not allow Tony’s protections to be subverted by backroom politics,” ALDF Executive Director Stephen Wells said Wednesday in a written statement. “Tony deserves to live in a reputable sanctuary, not a gas station parking lot.”

Sandlin, in a telephone interview, repeated his characterization of animal rights activists as domestic terrorists.

“It’s to be expected,” he said of the latest lawsuit. “They don’t like to lose. They don’t give up.”

Laura Gerdes Colligan, a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office, said the office could not comment because it had not been served with the suit.

State District Judge Mike Caldwell ruled in 2011 in a suit filed by ALDF that Tony was not permitted by Louisiana law to remain at the truck stop. The judge concluded the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries violated its own rules by exempting Sandlin and Tiger Truck Stop from permit requirements for owners of big cats.

The state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed Caldwell’s decision, and the Louisiana Supreme Court refused in the fall to hear Sandlin’s appeal of Caldwell’s ruling that he cannot get a state license to keep a tiger there.

Sandlin maintains he has held a federal permit to keep tigers at the truck stop since 1988. He has exhibited tigers at his truck stop since 1984.

He also says Tony has a swimming pool, an air-conditioned den and a grassy play area.

A 2006 state law bans anyone other than colleges, sanctuaries, zoos, wildlife research centers and scientific organizations from possessing big exotic cats. Tony was living at the truck stop several years before the ban went into effect.

SB250 allows Sandlin to keep only 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.

The state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries previously agreed not to move Tony until the lawsuit Sandlin filed against the state is resolved.

Sandlin, a private exhibitor, 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.