Louisiana Supreme Court Won’t Hear Truck Stop Tiger Case

By JANET McCONNAUGHEY | October 9, 2013

A truck stop owner trying to continue a quarter-century of showing a live tiger near Baton Rouge has been turned down by the Louisiana Supreme Court but says he will keep fighting to keep his current cat, Tony.

The state’s highest court refused without comment to hear Michael Sandlin’s appeal of a ruling that said he isn’t eligible for a state license to keep the 13-year-old Bengal-Siberian mix, the latest in a series of tigers kept since 1988 at Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete.

The state had granted Sandlin a permit to keep the tiger, but the Animal Legal Defense Fund went to court to have it revoked.

“As long as we have breath and God gives us the means to continue fighting for Tony, we will,” Sandlin wrote in a long statement emailed Monday by attorney Jennifer Treadway Morris.

Matthew Liebman, attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said he learned Monday that the court refused Friday to hear Sandlin’s appeal.

“I think this really is the end of the road for our lawsuit, which sought to have the Tiger Truck Stop declared ineligible for a permit,” Liebman said. “Under this state law, Tony can’t stay at the gas station.”

However, Sandlin, of Grosse Tete, has filed a separate lawsuit challenging the state law passed in 2006 to bar private ownership of exotic cats.

The law is unconstitutional because it exempts colleges and facilities accredited by the American Zoological Association but not by other groups, he wrote Monday. “LSU, the Baton Rouge Zoo and the Tiger Truck Stop all have exactly the same federal zoo license,” he continued. “There is no legal basis to exempt one USDA licensed exhibitor over another.”

A temporary order from U.S. District Judge Janice Clark, in charge of that case, forbids Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries agents from moving Tony, department spokesman Bo Boehringer said in an email.

“That lawsuit has been effectively on hold pending the outcome of the suit just decided. If that legal action is successful, the department would no longer have jurisdiction over exotic big cats,” Boehringer (BEHR-in-jer) wrote.

The truck stop has shown tigers since 1988. Tony and his 40-by-80-foot cage have been a focus of animal rights complaints at least since 2008.

Sandlin said the Legislature clearly meant him to keep his exhibit, which is licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “but outside interests employed technicalities and questionable legal practices to deprive us of our rights.”

The truck stop’s last annual state permit expired at the end of 2011. A state appeal court ruled in April that the department broke its own rules by granting Sandlin a permit to keep Tony, because the truck stop is Tony’s legal owner and the department’s rules call for individual owners.

The law does include a “grandfather clause” that lets people keep exotic pet cats that were legally owned before Aug. 15, 2006. That provision doesn’t distinguish between individual and corporate owners and TTS Inc. has had a USDA permit as a roadside zoo since 1988, Morris wrote in her appeal.

The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has said that Tony is the last privately owned big exotic cat in the state.

Sandlin maintains the tiger is healthy, happy, well cared for and loved.

And, he wrote, “Tigers and other exotic animals that have been forcibly removed from their homes often die within three months, from shock and grief. … If Tony even survives relocation, he will be isolated at an overcrowded accredited sanctuary, starving for human affection, and grieving for the people who have loved and cared for him over the years.”

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