In the annual legislative session that concludes this week, state lawmakers spent hours debating the fate of Tony, the Bengal tiger and roadside attraction that lives in a cage at Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete. Senate Bill 250 from state Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, attempts to make an exemption for Tony and his owner, Michael Sandlin, from a state law prohibiting exotic big cat ownership.
The bill passed the House Natural Resources committee May 28 by a 10-6 vote. After failing to convince his fellow senators to pass the measure in April, Ward resurrected the bill and passed it in May. Following a favorable vote in the House committee, the bill went
to the full House where it received final approval and will now go to Gov. Bobby Jindal for his signature.
In 2010, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) sued the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) for unlawfully issuing Sandlin a permit to keep Tony. In April 2013, the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal held that Sandlin is ineligible to hold a permit to keep the tiger. In October 2013, the Louisiana Supreme Court rejected Sandlin's petition to review the adverse ruling.
SB 250 would exempt Sandlin from the LDWF rules for ownership by authorizing under "previous ownership"— which currently is allowed by universities (read: LSU's Mike the tiger), zoos and sanctuaries — "persons who obtained their animal by lawful means and continuously possessed their animal since August 15, 2006." The Legislature passed a bill in 2006 limiting exotic pet ownership. (In a May editorial in The New Orleans Advocate, former State Rep. Warren Triche, who sponsored and helped pass that legislation, called the bill a "back door approach through the legislative process to undo what the courts have decided.")
Proponents warned that current law, if not amended, could open the door to banning hunting dogs and mascots. They also blamed ALDF and "outsiders" for "coming in and telling Louisiana" how to run businesses.
Committee members discussed Tony's health (and love life, or lack thereof), economic impact, and whether he'd be safer at an animal sanctuary. "I can tell you none of these places can afford the care where Tony is at," Sandlin said. "One-on-one attention, the best veterinary care and diet money can buy."
"We're here because the law was set in 2006. This issue was put to bed ... by both houses," said Carter Dillard, ALDF's director of litigation. "The options now are to let the courts decide, let the law run its course" or "waste taxpayer dollars" and let Tony "die in a parking lot."
On May 30, the bill passed the House 67-26. Before introducing the measure, state Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-Algiers, played Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" on the House floor.