In its 2014 session, the Louisiana Legislature spent hours debating the fate of Tony, a Bengal tiger and roadside attraction at Tiger Truck Stop in Gross 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 state law prohibiting exotic big cat ownership. The bill passed the House Natural Resources committee May 28 with a 10-6 vote. After failure in the state Senate in April, Ward resurrected the bill and passed it in May. Following today’s passage in committee, it heads to the House for final approval before heading to Gov. Bobby Jindal for a signature.
In 2010, the Animal Legal Defense Fund sued the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) for unlawfully issuing Sandlin a permit to keep Tony, and in April 2013, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal held that Sandlin is ineligible to hold a permit to keep Tony. In October 2013, the Louisiana Supreme Court rejected Sandlin’s petition to review the ruling.
SB 250 would exempt Sandlin from the LDWF rules for ownership by adding “previous ownership” — which currently is allowed by universities (re: LSU’s Mike the tiger), zoos and sanctuaries — to also include “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.”)
At today's meeting, Ward said, “All we’re doing is defining what previous ownership means.” 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), economic impact, and whether he’d be safer at an animal sanctuary — where ALDF would rather Tony live his life. “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.”