Animal rights group renews effort to free ‘Tony’

by Walter Pierce

After several failed legal maneuvers by the Animal Legal Defense Fund since 2011, the 16-year-old Bengal-Siberian tiger still languishes amid diesel fumes in an eclosure skirting I-10.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund hasn’t quit on Tony yet. The animal-rights group announced Tuesday a new lawsuit aimed at freeing the 550-pound tiger from its cramped enclosure at the Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete — this time marshaling a constitutional argument targeting the law that allowed truck stop owner Michael Sandlin to keep the animal as a road-side attraction despite a state law prohibiting private ownership of large, exotic animals.

Sandlin has been battling animal-rights activists for at least a decade to keep Tony. At point in the 1990s Tiger Truck Stop had six tigers on display and even had tiger cubs in the convenience store/restaurant for customers to pet and be photographed with — for a fee. The two sides have sparred over permits, a state law banning ownership of exotic animals and another state law grandfathering Sandlin in. The law barring private ownership of big, exotic animals was passed in 2006. The ALDF filed suit agaisnt the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in 2011, forcing it to enforce that law and compel Sandlin to send Tony to a tiger sanctuary or other approved location. Suits and counter suits stalled everything until 2014, when Gov. Bobby Jindal signed into law Act 697, which grandfathered in Sandlin, allowing him to keep Tony.

Sandlin and Tony in 2009
File Photo by Robin May

Now, the ALDF is arguing that that Act 697 — the law granting Sandlin an exemption to the ban on private ownership of exotic animals, which was signed into law in 2014 by former Gov. Bobby Jindal — violates the Louisiana Constitution’s prohibition on laws passed to benefit specific private individuals or special interests: Sandlin, the ADLF argues, is the only person in Louisiana who benefits from Act 697. (ALDF filed an amended petition to an existing lawsuit making this argument.)

“We have worked continuously to free Tony the Truck Stop Tiger for almost six years,” says ALDF Executive Director Stephen Wells in a release announcing the suit. “We will continue to work on his behalf until he is relocated to a sanctuary equipped to meet his psychological and physical needs.”

Several high profile law firms including Jones Walker, Proskauer Rose and Baker Donelson have taken the case pro bono on ALDF’s behalf, according to the group.

At one time Sandlin and his family owned a chain of Tiger Truck Stops, mainly in Texas, but have since sold off all but the Grosse Tete property. For more on Sandlin and the Tiger Truck Stop, read The Independent’s February 2009 cover story, “Cat Fight.”