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Arts & Culture

Criminal: Showdown At The Tiger Truck Stop

Tony the Tiger
Julienne Alexander
Tony the Tiger

The Criminal podcast team recently took a trip to Louisiana to see a special tiger named Tony.  But Tony the Tiger wasn't at a zoo or nature preserve.  He lives at a gas station called the Tiger Truck Stop.

Tony is a 550-pound Siberian-Bengal tiger, a hybrid of two endangered species. He's 16-years-old, which is pretty old for a tiger. Tony lives in a 3,000-square-foot cage. There's a covered area and a small pool. The cage looks clean, if sparse.

Michael Sandlin owns Tony and the Tiger Truck Stop. He said Tony is well-cared for.

"Tony has one-on-one attention," Sandlin said. "He has the best food that money can buy, that most zoos and sanctuaries can't afford. He's got excellent veterinarian care. He's loved. You know, if he was being abused he wouldn't still be alive at 16 years of age."

Sandlin says the cage is Tony's home, but Jeff Dorson of Louisiana's Humane Society disagrees. He wants Tony moved to a preserve.

"I have a whole different perspective. Here's mine: Species love to be with their own species," said Dorson. "Michael Sandlin isn't a Bengal Tiger. So who is he kidding?"

It was once legal to privately own a tiger. But in 2006, Louisiana made it illegal to own tigers and "wild quadrupeds". The state says it's a public safety issue, and also threatens endangered species. This launched a huge legal battle over Tony the Tiger.

Originally, Michael Sandlin was grandfathered in, being allowed to hang onto Tony. But the Animal Legal Defense Fund has sued the state, pointing out that Tony was actually property of Sandlin's corporation.

So Michael Sandlin hired some lobbyists. He made a documentary. And he got a new state law passed so he could own Tony himself. But Tony is it; after that, no more tigers for Michael Sandlin or the Tiger Truck Stop. But the legal battle rages on.

Carney Anne Nasser of the Animal Legal Defense Fund says having an exemption specifically for Michael Sandlin violates the constitution.

"I think we can all think of a law that we'd like to exempt ourselves from," Nasser said. "And it's just not fair that he got special treatment, and it's not constitutional either. And that's separate and on top of the fact that there's no reason to keep a tiger, an endangered species, in a gas station."

You can hear more from the fight over Tony the Tiger, and why Michael Sandlin says "Animal Rights Activists Taste Like Chicken" on this week's Criminal podcast. It's recorded here at WUNC, and Phoebe Judge hosts it. 

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