Below, please see Part Two of a three-part Q&A interview with Sandlin.
(Read Part One.)
In May, responding to a lawsuit by Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) against Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF), State District Judge Michael R. Caldwell ruled that the agency must grant no new ownership permits to Tiger Truck Stop of Grosse Tete after the current one expires in December.
However ALDF hopes to convince Caldwell to revoke the current permit, so that the ten-year-old, 550-pound Siberian-Bengal can be removed sooner from what the group says are unhealthy, unsafe, and uncomfortable conditions in a roadside exhibit at the Interstate 10 business, and relocated to a suitable big cat sanctuary.
Recently the judge denied Tiger Truck Stop owner Michael Sandlin's request that he be allowed to participate in court proceedings about Tony.
Q&A WITH MICHAEL SANDLIN – Part Two of Three
ANIMAL POLICY EXAMINER (APE): Mr. Sandlin, I understand you’re saying that Tony is not kept in a concrete enclosure all the time, that he has the option of the grassy play area. I think there are people who say, nevertheless, that that’s not a very natural environment for him. For instance in the wild, they have a range of I forget how many square miles. They say that Tony would be better off at some sort of sanctuary where he had more space, and more opportunities to express his natural behaviors than he does at your truck stop. What would be your response there?
MICHAEL SANDLIN: There’s a difference between captivity and the wild. That’s not I guess what all of them are saying. Some of them say that. And the difference between a tiger being in its natural habitat is of course that natural habitat is shrinking. And the tiger’s lifespan in captivity is somewhere between 20 and 25 years, and it’s about half that in the wild. The tiger has veterinary care, a proper diet, and one-on-one attention. Who’s to say that’s not better than the alternative?
And of course as far as the sanctuaries, I’ve seen several of the sanctuaries and some of them are a better situation and some of them are not. I mean, basically the sanctuary that most of these people want to send Tony to is a disgrace to me, and it’s basically taking him from one cage and putting him in another. I would much rather Tony stays where he’s at home, and not be put through that kind of traumatic transfer.
APE: So you think it would be difficult for him psychologically to make a change at this point in his life?
SANDLIN: Well, I mean he would probably have to be sedated, and he would have to be coerced into some kind of transport, and then carried off to some strange place.
And possibly he could never be put with other tigers. He’s fully intact—he has all his teeth and claws, he’s not neutered, he’s not altered in any way, and he couldn’t be put with tigers that didn’t have claws, for example.
It’s possible that he could be acclimated with other tigers that have claws and teeth and are fully intact, but again, it’s… Tigers in the wild are loners. I think it’s what they get used to. If the tiger is used to being with other cats, and then all of the sudden there are no more, then I think the tiger would grieve, would have a grieving process of missing those other cats. But outside of that I don’t think it’s a necessary or a natural thing for them outside of mating to search out other tigers.
I think it’s more of a human aspect of seeing the tiger by himself, and us being humans, and desiring connections with other human beings, to feel sorry for him and say, “Oh, he’s lonely.” But that’s not the case. That’s our own selves placing that scenario on the tiger when the tiger may not feel that way.
APE: There’s a documentary that you might or might not have seen yet—it’s new, it just came out this spring, I think. It’s called The Elephant in the Living Room. And it features a gentleman who is a police officer, but he has devoted a lot of his time to the issue of whether or not folks should keep exotic or wild animals in captivity.
SANDLIN: Including these sanctuaries that we’re talking about?
APE: Well, I don’t know exactly. I just know that—
SANDLIN: Or are they special? You know what I’m saying? It’s the same thing. I mean these animals, although they are exotic, and in the case of Tony he’s an exotic and dangerous animal, I mean he could very easily kill his owner or anyone else, given the opportunity. I’m not saying that he would, but he is certainly capable of doing that. I mean, they can hurt you just playing with you.
These animals are fully capable of being affectionate. I’ve had cats that I’ve spent a lot of time with, and could go in with them, and could walk them on a leash, and that sort of thing. And there’s people that have them in their homes.
Look at Siegfried and Roy, and there’s some kind of argument as to whether the latest attack was the tiger’s fault or not. They don’t seem to believe that it was, but there’s a lot of people out there that have had a lot of [unintelligible word] with these kinds of animals but I’ve always taught that never forget they’re tigers. You’re dealing with something that can kill you, so always keep that in mind.
But I believe that there’s people out there that don’t believe that, and I think that might be a reason to have rules and regulations to protect people from animals, but it’s not a reason to take away their right to own that animal if they’re morally and financially and physically located and in a situation that would allow them to do so. And they should have a right to own the animal of their choice.
APE: You’re putting your finger on exactly the point that this fellow Tim Harrison—he’s a police officer, like I said, and he’s handled a lot of cases involving private ownership of wild animals—and that was his main issue when I interviewed him. He kept repeating that he’s really concerned that these animals oftentimes do cause harm to their owners or to people handling them.
He feels that private ownership of such animals is just a really bad idea. And at one point, the question he asked was, “There are so many dogs and cats dying in shelters right now, why don’t these folks adopt those animals instead of these exotic, wild animals that don’t belong in private settings?”
SANDLIN: Well, I have three house cats as well. I have twelve ducks, nine chickens, and four baby chicks, and I’ve always had pets. I’ve had friends that have had big dogs, and I’ve known big dogs that have attacked their owners and other people. Where do you draw the line?
Some day, what if they come to you and say you have to get rid of those dogs that you have, because I don’t think you should have those dogs, because they can turn around and bite you? That’s your choice. If you want to have pets then it’s your choice to have pets, and whatever risk is involved for you to have those pets and to love them and care for them… if they can turn and bite you or harm you in any way, then that’s the risk that you’re taking. If you’re of sound mind, I think you should have the right to have those dogs in the home.
We’re not talking about dogs here, we’re talking about tigers, but it’s all the same principle. There’s a lot of people in the country right now that are having to surrender these animals—their exotic animals—not just tigers but all kinds of exotic animals, because their rights are being taken away from them, and they’re having to surrender these animals to sanctuaries, or they’re having to pack up all their belongings and sell their homes and pack up their animals that they love, and they’re having to move to another state that still allows them to own these animals.
Unfortunately Louisiana is one of the states that has caved into these animal rights activists and passed legislation that bans private ownership and there are some people in the state that have had to give up their animals and/or moved to another state that allowed them to keep them.
APE: What’s next for you, Mr. Sandlin? I understand you’re taking some action to establish a legal standing for yourself? I’m sorry I’m not a lawyer and I don’t understand all these things, but you’ve taken some action so that you can fight the judge’s decision recently. Can you explain what that is?
SANDLIN: Well, yeah, the latest action was by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and by the way, they’ve already got it all over their website that they’re claiming victory and that they need your donations to help them keep fighting. And again, that’s how they make money. I understand that. But I question their motivation. I don’t think any of these people have lifted one finger or spent one red cent to do anything to help Tony, and they’re sitting there making thousands of dollars off of Tony by doing what they’re doing. And I think that it’s wrong.
But the question about the lawsuit with the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries… Basically ALDF sued Wildlife and Fisheries, and I wasn’t invited to the party. I knew about the lawsuit via the media, and I didn’t know about the hearing until it was reported on the local news station that the hearing was taking place that day.
And I really didn’t think they were going to get anywhere with it, but they did. They got the judge to rule that Wildlife and Fisheries couldn’t issue any further permits. And that would mean that my current permit, when it expires on December 31, 2011, that I wouldn’t be issued another permit, and that I would have until that time to relocate Tony.
But I have filed a petition of intervention and basically that petition says that my civil rights were violated, that these two entities [ALDF and LDWF] went to court, and without my participation or without my being allowed to present evidence or an argument of any kind, decided what to do with my property. And we’re requesting a new hearing. If he [the judge] rules against us in our petition, we’re prepared to file an appeal and take it to a higher court. So the fight is far from over.
Please see Part Three of this interview, and check this page again soon for reactions from animal rescue organizations.
To voice your opinion about the future of Tony the tiger, contact Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
For previous articles about Tony the tiger case please click on 'Animal Policy Examiner' above.
A cofounder of AnimalBeat.org, she holds a B.A. in Environmental Science Studies and a lifelong interest in animal issues.