Joe Fallas stares through the lens of his Nikon D90 camera, waiting for his subject, Tony, to strike a good pose. "C'mon," Fallas hollers, "look up." An 8-year-old, 550-pound Siberian-Bengal tiger caged behind a double layer of fence, Tony doesn't appear to be in the mood.
Fallas, a sign manufacturer from Houston, made it a point to pull into the Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete on his way across the state, a good place, he says, to take a break from driving and test out his new camera.
For 21 years, Tiger Truck Stop has been more than just a place to refuel between Lafayette and Baton Rouge; it's a roadside attraction. In the mid-1990s, the exhibit held six live tigers, and the gas station used to keep baby tiger cubs in its convenience store, allowing patrons to pet the cats and take pictures with them for a small fee.
This sideshow has also made Tiger Truck Stop the scourge of the animal rights community. According to animal rights activists, Tony's relatively small enclosure (approximately 700 square feet), the constant gas fumes in the air and poor treatment from the gas station's untrained employees amount to nothing short of animal abuse.
Michael Sandlin, on the other hand, says the activists are out to infringe on his personal freedoms. And he could care less that the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has placed him on its Top 10 offenders list — "right up there with Burger King," Michael says, "and people who eat hamburger meat." Sitting at one of the booths inside his Tiger Restaurant, he leans forward, hands clasped in front of him. Speaking with a slight lisp, his east Texas accent is less pronounced than that of his older brother and former business partner, Wendel Jr.
"We feel like if the person is morally and financially capable of caring for an animal such as a tiger or a leopard that they should have the right to do so," Michael says. "It doesn't mean that they can chain a tiger up in their backyard. But if they have a place, might be a ranch or some nice enclosure and [the animal] would be their pet and so forth, then we think they should have a right to own that animal. So we're for private ownership."
The Sandlin brothers and their father at one time owned nine Tiger Truck Stops throughout Texas, along with one in Arizona. In the 1980s, several of those stations exhibited live tigers. It was a family tradition. "We've always had a love for the big cats," Wendel Jr. says.
The Sandlins are clearly swimming against the tide. Increasingly, state and federal agencies have been tightening regulations on wild-animal ownership and breeding, designed to cut back on the number of exotic cats bred and sold on the black market and later found abandoned or unwanted.
"We're not trying to disobey the law," Michael explains. "We're not against regulations. There needs to be regulations to protect the tigers, and there needs to be laws to protect people from dangerous animals. We recognize that. We're not against regulating those things. But we are against the rights of people to own those animals being taken away from them. That's the difference."
Now Michael is in danger of losing Tony, his last tiger, as Louisiana has ramped up its own exotic-animal ownership restrictions. "The state's tied my hands," Michael laments. "The laws have made it where I can't ever breed again. The state law is, I'm grandfathered in ... but just on Tony. Once he's gone, it's over. I'm not giving him up without a fight."
As directed by the state Legislature, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife
and Fisheries (LDWF) added big exotic cats to the list of Potentially Dangerous Quadrupeds and Non-Human Primates on June 20, 2007. The new designation makes it illegal "to import, possess, purchase or sell a big exotic cat within the state of Louisiana."
There are six exceptions written into the law: accredited zoos, circuses, public universities that have traditionally kept a big cat mascot (read: LSU), research facilities, anyone legally transporting a big cat across state lines and individuals who possessed an exotic cat legally prior to Aug. 15, 2006. The individuals falling under that last exemption must abide by a series of requirements that include: obtaining a permit from the LDWF, no breeding, keeping a weapon capable of immobilizing and killing the animal on the premises at all times, and keeping cats in a sanitary and safe condition without maltreatment or neglect. The person receiving the permit must also live on the premises and comply with all applicable federal, state or local laws, rules, regulations and ordinances.
Because Michael operated a 24-hour truck stop, he managed to qualify without technically living on the premises where his tiger is kept. In January 2008, he applied for his permit and appeared to be in line to receive one. That was before Lafayette's Sky Williamson came along.
A native of Melbourne, Fla., Williamson's job as a cable company subcontractor brought her to Louisiana in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina. It wasn't until 2007 that she first came across the Tiger Truck Stop.
"The first time I saw Tony was Jan. 31, 2007," she recalls. After veering off the interstate, she found Tony, in his cage amid piles of his own feces. She says the smell was almost unbearable: "I couldn't believe it."
Haunted by the image of Tony, Williamson began researching the truck stop. "I found out that this has been an ongoing problem," she says. "I found the violations, then I would find articles, and the more research I did, the more I was driven to try and get him out of there."
The violations to which Williamson refers come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which permits and regulates exotic cat ownership on the federal level. Michael has received no fewer than 10 USDA violations since 1997, running the gamut of almost all aspects of animal care and underscoring the inherent difficulty that must come with keeping one 550-pound exotic cat, let alone several.
Tiger Truck Stop has been cited for failure to properly clean cages to maintain adequate sanitation, failure to maintain structurally sound cages, not utilizing a sufficient number of adequately trained employees, improper food storage, failure to provide sufficient food, unsanitary feeding practices, failure to have a veterinary care program, mishandling animals, failure to clean water receptacles with algae growth and failure to provide shelter from inclement weather. In 2003, as part of a settlement for repeated violations, Michael paid a $2,500 fine and agreed to give up three of his tigers, which were relocated to a sanctuary in Tennessee. That left only Tony at the Tiger Truck Stop.
Williamson's urge to help Tony has grown into an obsession. She says she receives more than 100 emails a day and dedicates in excess of 60 hours a week to freeing Tony. The online petition she started boasts more than 2,400 signatures. (Michael has started his own online petition to "save Tony," which has 369 signatures.)
Soon after she started pushing the cause, Williamson found a partner in Big Cat Rescue, a Florida nonprofit that bills itself as the world's largest accredited big cat rescue and sanctuary. Founder and CEO Carole Baskin says every year her organization is forced to turn away hundreds of abandoned and unwanted cats that have been bred and exploited — often used as photo props while they are cubs — in the private sector. Baskin's group has helped organize lobbying in Washington, D.C. for a law (passed in 2003) to prohibit the sale of big cats as pets across state lines. It is now pushing a law to prohibit any contact with cubs.
Each year, Baskin says, the top complaint of animal abuse Big Cat Rescue receives is the Tiger Truck Stop. That's why her organization is offering to take in Tony, ahead of all the other big cats it is being forced to turn away.
"It is because of the level of abuse that's happening there," Baskin says. "I've been to the truck stop; I've seen the horrible situation. I've smelled the gas fumes. I've heard the trucks dieseling next to that cat constantly. There's a lot of really bad situations out there right now, but this is at the top of the list."
In October of last year, Williamson's research led her to an ordinance, passed in 1993 by the Iberville Parish Council, that prohibits the ownership or display of wild or exotic animals. The only exceptions listed are for zoological parks, performing animal exhibitions, circuses or veterinary clinics.
Williamson immediately brought the law to the attention of the LDWF, which was still processing Michael's permit application for Tony. This revelation changed everything, as LDWF rules state that in order to receive a permit, an exotic pet owner must be in compliance with all other local laws. The department promptly wrote Michael advising him his application had been placed on hold based upon their discovery of the 1993 Iberville ban. In November, the department followed up with a citation giving Michael 30 days to find a home for Tony outside Louisiana.
Michael maintained that because his truck stop opened in 1988 he should be grandfathered in. In November, he hired attorney Joseph Dupont, who filed an Injunction and Temporary Restraining Order against the LDWF to keep it from seizing the Sandlins' tiger. The order was signed by District Judge Robin Free on Dec. 16, 2008. In an effort to resolve the matter, both Michael and the the LDWF have agreed to let the Iberville Parish Council decide the matter. The council is scheduled to vote Feb. 17 on whether to grandfather Tony into its exotic animal law.
When the matter was introduced at the December council meeting, the two sides almost came to blows in the halls of the Iberville Parish courthouse. The incident, which can be viewed on YouTube, started as Williamson gave an interview with a local TV station and one of the Sandlins' supporters hollered, "So a Florida resident is an expert in Louisiana law?" Someone else shouts out, "It's our family, lady."
"No," Williamson shoots back, "an endangered tiger is not family."
Then one of Williamson's supporters walks in front of her. "F—king inbreds," she says. Michael's sister quickly walks over and reaches out to grab the woman before police and other officials restrain each side.
Williamson says she remains embarrassed by the incident. However, she does acknowledge that it highlights a perception of Louisiana she must guard against.
"Louisiana had a bad reputation before," she says. "But the more people find out things like there's a tiger at a truck stop, it's bad. It's like I'm verifying what they already believe. And that's not my intention because I don't think everybody in Louisiana's stupid."
Back at Tiger Truck Stop, the sun is setting, and Michael Sandlin steps out of the Tiger Restaurant. He acknowledges he's a poster child for animal rights advocates, but argues anyone who really wants to help Tony can help him fund a better facility right here.
Over at the tiger cage, a crowd has gathered around to watch Tony, who has moved over and is occasionally rolling around in the grassy part of his enclosure. One man comments he's never seen him so active. Another teenage kid asks, "What's his name? Tony? Like the cereal?"
Larry Stample, a truck driver from St. Petersburg, Fla., carries a small box of Broaster chicken strips and an energy drink he just purchased. Looking up at the banner that hangs on the fence — "Save the Tiger, Help Us Keep the Tiger in Grosse Tete" — Stample speaks for the majority of the group when he says the Tiger Truck Stop ought to be able to keep Tony.
"This is their pet," he says. "They've had [Tony] since he was born. Imagine somebody trying to take your pet away." Besides, Stample adds, animal rights groups like PETA are too fanatical: "They tell people don't eat hamburgers and shit."
As Michael Sandlin walks over, he calls out, "Hey, Tony, has Sky Williamson been coming around here and bothering you?"
He turns to make a more serious point. "If and when he ever goes anywhere,, it'll be where I decide," Michael says. "Hell will freeze over before Big Cat Rescue gets him."
Nathan Stubbs is an editor at The Independent in Lafayette. Contact him at email@example.com.