Below please see Part One of a three-part Q&A interview with Sandlin.
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 One of Three
ANIMAL POLICY EXAMINER (APE): I guess my first question to you, Mr. Sandlin, is to lay it open to you, to give you a chance to express your point of view about the efforts to remove Tony from your business there.
MICHAEL SANDLIN: Well, I think it’s sad. I think a lot of what is happening is being fueled by, I guess, money. Tony and the live tiger exhibit at Tiger Truck Stop are highly visible, right there on Interstate 10. It’s a highly visible situation, so it’s something that the animal rights activists are really jumping into and exploiting in a way that they tend to do. It’s how they raise money. It’s how they get donations.
There’s a lot of things being said that are not true, and they’re painting a horrible picture of the situation that’s not true. People who come out and see for themselves see that it’s nothing like the story that’s being told on the Internet. It’s not a situation that the tiger needs to be rescued from.
But most people that are jumping on the bandwagon, so to speak, haven’t had that opportunity. I’m not saying all of them haven’t, but most of them have not had the opportunity to come by and see for themselves, and unfortunately they’re sending a lot of these organizations donations even though they’re being lied to and they’re being defrauded by these people.
Tony is not sick. He’s not forced to live on concrete. He’s not hit by diesel and/or diesel fumes 24/7. There’s a whole list of things that are being said. Those things are all lies. That’s the story that they’re telling and these groups are making thousands and some of them millions by doing this to responsible animal owners all over the country.
I understand what they’re doing. I don’t agree with what they’re doing. I think that some of them—especially the followers—are good people that really love animals, but they just don’t know the truth. Sometimes these groups even do some good things.
But in this situation it’s not a case of the tiger being abused or neglected or anything like that. Tony is very well taken-care of. He meets all the criteria of the Animal Welfare Act licensing. He’s not only inspected now by the federal USDA [United States Department of Agriculture], but he’s got the state of Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries coming in, and he’s got the Iberville Parish Animal Control coming in every week and doing inspections.
I don’t know why these groups of people have to demonize someone, or make someone a villain. But they do, and I guess I’m that person.
We’re not against rules and regulations that protect the animal and protect the people from animals like this. Those things are in place and need to be in place, and they need to be enforced. But we are against laws and animal rights legislation that bans private ownership of these animals, that taking these animals away from owners that are responsible owners is wrong, and that’s basically what’s going on right now.
APE: Thank you. You addressed a lot of the questions that I think people have when they look at this situation. I think a lot of people are worried about the possible diesel fumes, and also that Tony lives on concrete. On that point, you’re saying that he does not live in a concrete cage most of the time?
SANDLIN: Well, it’s a 40-foot by 80-foot enclosure. There are four 20 by 20 concrete slabs and shelters that he has access to and of course sleeps in and goes into to get some privacy when he wants to.
But he’s not forced to live in those all the time. There’s a 40-foot by 40-foot grassy play area that he has access to at all times unless the caregiver is in there cleaning or something like that.
And there’s a series of gates that have to be closed to protect the caregiver in the process of cleaning or working in the exhibit. So no, he’s not forced to live on concrete all the time.
APE: I see.
SANDLIN: I’ve seen sanctuaries that have no concrete and tend to have a standing water problem, with the tiger living in inhumane conditions, if I might say so, in standing water or in mud. The exhibit that they’re forced to live in has no concrete so the exhibit can’t be cleaned, it cannot be sanitized. They tend to have flea infestation problems and other problems connected with simply removing the feces from the cage or exhibit or habitat, and not being able to clean it properly.
So I think the whole thing about having the tiger on concrete is kind of ridiculous, because I think not to have concrete is a bad thing. It’s just not a sanitary way to care for the animals.
APE: I’m going to be repeating to you questions that I hear from readers and so forth. I think the most basic question probably is… what compels you, or why is it important to you have a tiger? And I know you’ve had more than just Tony in the past. What for you is important about that?
SANDLIN: Well, I don’t know if you’re talking about now or if you’re talking about 25 years ago when we first obtained tigers. Twenty-five years ago it was an idea— and of course a lot of things have changed in 25 years, but my brother was the one who originally obtained the cats, and he was a Leo, and he always liked big cats, and loved the idea of having one as a mascot or as a pet. My family was in the truck stop business, and he got the idea to get a couple of tigers as an attraction. And that’s how it all got started.
I got the tigers from him. He gave me the tigers. I bought the location in Grosse Tete, Louisiana, and I moved the tigers from Texas to Grosse Tete.
And 24 years later I have one tiger left, and that’s Tony. And it’s become a lot more than that to me.
I have 24 years of hands-on experience with taking care of the tigers and raising ten cubs at the truck stop out of 13 that were born there. Ten of those survived, and those are a lot of great experiences and great memories not only for myself but for a lot of other people that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.
So it’s just been a wonderful experience. It’s more than just an attraction anymore. You understand what I’m saying?
APE: It’s something, then, that’s important to you because over the years you’ve developed an affection for tigers and for Tony?
SANDLIN: Well, sure.
APE: Have you had Tony since his birth? Did you breed Tony?
SANDLIN: Tony is not one of the 13 cubs that were born at the truck stop. My dad had a truck stop in Texas and he actually had some tigers there, and I didn’t have anything to do with that operation. But it’s a family thing, you know, and like I said my brother—it was his idea, and then my dad actually got the tigers, and then I just kind of inherited the situation.
But my dad leased the truck stop in west Texas out to someone else, and he gave Tony and another tiger—Sophia—to me, and I brought them from west Texas to Grosse Tete. Tony and Sophia were about six months old when I got them from my dad.
APE: There are a lot of people who think that the reason you want to keep Tony is to draw customers into your business. What would you want to say to them?
SANDLIN: That’s absolutely true. I don’t have a problem with saying that Tony is an attraction. A lot of people stop to see Tony.
Like I said, that’s not the only reason anymore. There’s a lot of attachment there, not only for Tony but for all the cats I’ve had over the past 24 years.
But yes, Tony was placed there as an attraction. The public can come and see Tony free of charge. And it’s a good thing. It’s a good thing that people can come and see the tigers—now the one tiger, Tony—up close and personal.
Please read Part Two and Part Three of this interview, and check this page again soon for reactions to this interview 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.
She may be reached at email@example.com