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Joe Fallas stares through the lens of his Nikon D90 camera, waiting for his subject, Tony, to strike a good pose. “C’mon,” Fallas hollers, “Look up.” An 8-year-old 550-pound Siberian-Bengal tiger caged behind a double layer of fence, Tony doesn’t appear to be in the mood.

Tony continues pacing back and forth on the concrete floor. Fallas lowers his camera, looks down into the camera’s LCD screen and scrolls through the pictures he’s taken, grinning. “I just bought this camera,” he says. “The pictures are amazing.”

Dressed in jeans, T-shirt and tennis shoes, Fallas, a sign manufacturer from Houston, made it a point to pull into the Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete on his way across the state, a good place, he says, to take a break from driving and test out his new camera.

It’s a cool Thursday afternoon, and Fallas has the sun at his back. As the breeze picks up, so does the American flag waving in the background and the smell of diesel fumes from the gas tanks some 30 yards away.

Tony moves over to the side of his enclosure, and Fallas, beginning to look a little impatient, follows around the corner. Just then Tony jumps up on the wooden kennel, built for him to sleep in, inside the cage. He walks up to the corner and stretches out his neck, ears perked,  his mouth open slightly to flash his fangs, posing.

“Here we go,” Fallas says, clicking away on his Nikon.

For the past 21 years, Tiger Truck Stop has been more than just a place to refuel between Lafayette and Baton Rouge; it’s a roadside attraction. At one point, in the mid-90s, the tiger exhibit here held six live tigers. Regular customers can also remember when the gas station used to keep baby tiger cubs in its convenience store, allowing patrons to pet the cats and take pictures with them, for a small fee.

That Tiger Truck Stop enlisted the largest of the jungle’s great cats as its live mascot and put it on convenient display for the tens of thousands of daily I-10 commuters has made the pit stop a favorite of some travelers. This sideshow has also made Tiger Truck Stop the scourge of the animal rights community. According to animal rights’ activists, Tony’s relatively small enclosure (approximately 700 square feet) the constant gas fumes in the air, and poor treatment from the gas station’s untrained employees amount to nothing short of animal abuse.

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 Michael Sandlin in front of his tiger exhibit
 Photo by Robin May
 
Michael Sandlin, on the other hand, says animal rights activists are out to infringe on his personal freedoms. At times he has likened the issue to gun control zealots intent on taking away people’s right to own firearms. And he could care less that the fringe group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has placed him on its Top 10 offenders list. “Right up there with Burger King,” Michael says, “and people who eat hamburger meat.”

At roughly 6 feet tall and 300 pounds, Michael Sandlin is an imposing figure. He wears a bushy beard and often a flat, skeptical stare on his face, occasionally flashing a wide Cheshire cat grin. But mostly he comes off as genuine and soft-hearted. Sitting at one of the booths inside his Tiger Restaurant, he leans forward, hands clasped in front of him. Speaking with a slight lisp, his east Texas accent is less pronounced than his older brother and former business partner, Wendel Jr.

“We feel like if the person is morally and financially capable of caring for an animal such as a tiger or a leopard that they should have the right to do so,” Michael says. “It doesn’t mean that they can chain a tiger up in their back yard down in the Bayou Blue subdivision. But if they have a place, might be a ranch or some nice enclosure and [the animal] would be their pet and so forth, then we think they should have a right to own that animal. So we’re for private ownership.”

Michael isn’t shy about recounting how he has raised several tigers, born at this truck stop, from a young age. “I’ve taken cubs home. I’d get a kiddie pool out and set the pool, and they’d come jump in and out with me. I’d go run around in the front yard, and they’d follow me like mama, wherever I go you know.”

Michael would even go so far as to bottle feed the cubs and take a rag and wipe their behinds, emulating a mother’s licking, to make them go to the bathroom. “Since you take them away from mama at about 3 weeks old, then you have to be mama and do all of that stuff,” he says.

The Sandlin brothers and their father at one time owned nine Tiger Truck Stops throughout Texas, along with one in Arizona. Back in the 1980s, several of those stations exhibited live tigers. It was a bit of a family tradition.

“We’ve always had a love for the big cats,” Wendel Jr. says. “Everything about them that was unique, beautiful, we’ve always had the desire for them.”

The infatuation is readily apparent. A decal of a white tiger face adorns the back of Michael’s truck. A painted mural of a bayou scene with a tiger, done in Tony’s likeness, is one of the first images visitors see upon driving up to the tiger exhibit.

On the Web site, tigertruckstop.com, there is an image of Michael, lying back on his black leather couch, shirtless, underneath a blanket with two Tiger cubs cuddled up next to him. The caption reads: “Michael Sandlin and two very sleepy cubs. (Sorry folks, this is as racy as it gets… lol!)” On the Web, Tiger Truck Stop also uses the advertising slogans: “The only live tigers on I-10!” and “Anybody cancome to Louisiana and see an alligator! You can tell your friends you saw a tiger!”

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 Wendel Sandlin Jr., Michael Sandlin’s older brother, helped launch the Tiger Truck Stop chain in Texas.
  Photo by Robin May
 
If you ask the Sandlins, the Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete is the last of its kind because all the other locations were sold off, mainly for financial reasons. According to animal rights groups, the Sandlins’ truck stops were practically run out of Texas, for a series of permit violations and other legal complications with their live tiger exhibits.

The Sandlins are clearly swimming against the tide. Increasingly, state and federal agencies have been tightening regulations on wild animal ownership and breeding, designed to cut back on the disturbing number of exotic cats bred and sold on the black market and later found abandoned or unwanted.

“We’re not trying to disobey the law,” Michael explains. “We’re not against regulations. There needs to be regulations to protect the tigers, and there needs to be laws to protect people from dangerous animals and we understand that. We recognize that. We’re not against regulating those things. But we are against the rights of people to own those animals being taken away from them. That’s the difference.”

Now Michael is in danger of losing Tony, his last tiger, as Louisiana has ramped up its own exotic animal ownership restrictions. “The state’s tied my hands,” Michael laments. “The laws have made it where I can’t ever breed again. The state law is I’m grandfathered in but just on Tony. Once he’s gone, it’s over. I’m not giving him up without a fight.”

As directed by the state Legislature, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries added big exotic cats to the list of Potentially Dangerous Quadrupeds and Non-Human Primates on June 20, 2007. The new designation makes it illegal “to import, possess, purchase or sell a big exotic cat within the state of Louisiana.”

There are six exceptions written into the law: accredited zoos, circuses, public universities that have traditionally kept a big cat mascot (read: LSU), research facilities, anyone legally transporting a big cat across state lines, and individuals who possessed an exotic cat legally prior to Aug. 15, 2006. The individuals falling under that last exemption must abide by a series of requirements that include: obtaining a permit from Wildlife and Fisheries, no breeding, keeping a weapon capable of immobilizing and killing the animal on the premises at all times, and keeping cats in a sanitary and safe condition without maltreatment or neglect. The person receiving the permit must also live on the premises and comply with all applicable federal, state or local laws, rules, regulations and ordinances.

Because Michael operated a 24-hour truckstop, he managed to qualify without technically living on the premises where his tiger is kept. In January 2008 he applied for his permit and appeared to be in line to receive one. That was before Lafayette’s Sky Williamson came along.

Lanky and fast-talking, Williamson is Michael Sandlin’s opposite in almost every way. Her straight brown hair is sharply parted in the middle, short bangs covering her forehead. She has what looks like a homemade tattoo of a heart on the back of her left hand, between the thumb and first finger.

About 10 years ago, Williamson started becoming more conscious of animal abuse and was continually struck by some of the common practices she would notice at the zoo and circus. “For some reason, I started noticing things,” she says. “I thought, I don’t want my son to see this; I don’t even think this is OK. If you go to a zoo because you’re trying to satisfy your child to see those animals and you leave upset, what’s the point?”

Williamson also began volunteering, mainly with community animal shelter and aid organizations and did what she describes as some “independent rescues” of abused pets. A native of Melbourne, Fla., Williamson’s job as a cable company subcontractor brought her to Louisiana in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina. It wasn’t till 2007 that she first noticed and came across the Tiger Truck Stop.

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Lafayette resident Sky Williamson is spearheading the campaign to relocate Tony from his truck stop home.
Photo by Robin May
 
“The first time I saw Tony was Jan. 31, 2007,” she recalls. After veering off the interstate to find out what exactly was on display at Tiger Truck Stop, she found Tony, in his cage amid piles of his own feces. She says the smell was almost unbearable. “I couldn’t believe it,” Williamson says. “It took me away. When you’re face to face with something like this, you kind of have to take a second and take in what you’re seeing.”

The image of Tony continued to haunt her, and when Williamson got home that night, she immediately began researching the truck stop.

“I found out that this has been an ongoing problem,” she says. “I found the violations, then I would find articles, and the more research I did, the more I was driven to try and get him out of there.”

The violations Williamson is referring come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which permits and regulates exotic cat ownership on the federal level. Dating back to 1997, Michael has received no fewer than 10 USDA violations, running the gamut of almost all aspects of animal care and underscoring the inherent difficulty that must come with keeping one 550-pound exotic cat, let alone several. Tiger Truck Stop has been cited for failure to properly clean cages to maintain adequate sanitation, failure to maintain structurally sound cages, not utilizing a sufficient number of adequately trained employees, improper food storage, failure to provide sufficient food, unsanitary feeding practices, failure to have a veterinary care program, mishandling animals, failure to clean water receptacles with algae growth, and failure to provide shelter from inclement weather. In 2003, as part of a settlement for repeated violations, Michael paid a $2,500 fine and agreed to give up three of his tigers, which were relocated to a sanctuary in Tennessee. That left only Tony at the Tiger Truck Stop.

Williamson’s urge to help Tony has grown into an obsession.

“If you quit,” Williamson says, “and that’s what’s happened over the past 20 years, that’s why there’s still a tiger there. I went and saw Tony many times, and every time I would leave I would be upset and I kept on telling myself, ‘If you don’t fight for him, who’s going to?’ He can’t talk for himself; somebody’s got to be his voice. Somebody’s got to bring this out to the public. Somebody’s got to change this reality. Why not now? If it’s not me, who else is it going to be?”

Williamson says she receives more than 100 e-mails a day and dedicates in excess of 60 hours a week to freeing Tony. The online petition she started boasts more than 2,400 signatures. (Michael has started his own online petition to “save Tony,” which has 369 signatures.)

While she concedes a degree of fanaticism, Williamson says she knows where to draw the line. “I don’t do PETA,” she says. She’s already been contacted by a couple of PETA volunteers who have suggested tactics like breaking Tony out of his cage or even killing him as a way to end his misery.

“I don’t mind extreme,” Williamson says. “I’ve jumped fences before and I’ve cut chains before, but that’s a dog and a cat. You can put them in your car and move on. This is a tiger for God’s sake. It just doesn’t work like that. You have to follow the law completely, or you’re not going to help this tiger at all, not even a little bit.”

Soon after she started pushing the cause, Williamson found a partner in Big Cat Rescue, a Florida nonprofit that bills itself as the world’s largest accredited big cat rescue and sanctuary. Founder and CEO Carole Baskin says every year her organization is forced to turn away hundreds of abandoned and unwanted cats she says have been bred and exploited — often used as photo props while they are cubs — in the private sector. Baskin’s group has helped organize lobbying in D.C. to push a law passed in 2003 to prohibit the sale of big cats as pets across state lines. It is now pushing a law to prohibit any contact with cubs.

Each year, Baskin says the top complaint of animal abuse her organization receives is the Tiger Truck Stop. That’s why her organization is offering to take Tony in, ahead of all the other big cats it is being forced to turn away.

“It is because of the level of abuse that’s happening there,” Baskin says. “I’ve been to the truck stop; I’ve seen the horrible situation. I’ve smelled the gas fumes. I’ve heard the trucks dieseling next to that cat constantly. There’s a lot of really bad situations out there right now, but this is at the top of the list.”

In October of last year, Williamson’s research led her to an ordinance, passed in 1993 by the Iberville Parish Council, that prohibits the ownership or display of wild or exotic animals. The only exceptions listed are for zoological parks, performing animal exhibitions, circuses or veterinary clinics.

Williamson immediately brought the law to the attention to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, which was still processing Michael’s permit application for Tony. This new revelation changed everything, as Wildlife and Fisheries’ own rules state that in order to receive a permit, an exotic pet owner must be in compliance with all other local laws. The department promptly wrote Michael advising him that his application had been placed on hold based upon their discovery of the 1993 Iberville ban.

In November, the department followed up with a citation giving Michael 30 days to find a home for Tony outside of Louisiana because he was not in compliance with Iberville Parish law.

Michael maintained that, since his truck stop opened in 1988, he should also be grandfathered into the Iberville Parish law. In November, he hired well-known attorney Joseph Dupont, who filed an Injunction and Temporary Restraining Order against Wildlife and Fisheries to keep it from seizing the Sandlins’ tiger. The order was signed by District Judge Robin Free on Dec. 16, 2008.

In an effort to resolve the matter, both Michael and the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries have agreed to let the Iberville Parish Council decide the matter for itself. The council is scheduled to vote Feb. 17 on whether to grandfather Michael into its exotic animal law.

When the matter was introduced at the December council meeting, the two sides almost came to blows in the halls of the Iberville Parish courthouse. The incident, which can be viewed on YouTube, started as Williamson gave an interview with a local TV station and one of the Sandlins’ supporters hollered out, “So a Florida resident is an expert in Louisiana law?” There are some laughs, and then someone else shouts out, “It’s our family, lady.”

“No,” Williamson shoots back, “an endangered tiger is not family.”

Just then one of Williamson’s supporters walks over in front of her. “F---ing inbreds,” she says, looking askance at the Sandlins’ group. Michael’s sister quickly walks over and reaches out to grab the lady before police and other officials restrain each side.

Williamson says she remains embarrassed by the incident. However, she does acknowledge that it highlights a perception of Louisiana that she constantly must guard against.

“Louisiana had a bad reputation before,” she says. “But the more that people find out things like there’s a tiger at a truck stop, it’s bad, it’s like I’m verifying what they already believe. And that’s not my intention because I don’t think everybody in Louisiana’s stupid.”

Williamson gives her side about a 50 percent chance with the council vote but says she will never drop the issue, even though she says she has already received violent threats that led her to hire an attorney and a private investigator.

“For months, I lived, slept, ate, drank this tiger,” she says. “I would get up in the middle of the night and get on my computer, start writing letters, start doing research. Every time I would see him it would drive me all over again to work harder, work harder, work harder. Get other people involved, get the media involved. Write the USDA. Do whatever it takes. Push it as far as you can go. Get that tiger out of there. That’s it. I’m wiling to go the length.”

Back at Tiger Truck Stop, the sun is starting to set, and Michael Sandlin steps out of the Tiger Restaurant and looks across his truck stop campus at his Country Store and tiger exhibit. He acknowledges he’s a poster child for animal rights advocates and says it’s what drives their opposition. He helps them rake in donations. (Big Cat Rescue’s Baskin says donations received to help Tony will never cover the cost of a lifetime’s worth of care for the tiger). Sandlin also argues anyone who really wants to help Tony can help him fund a better facility right here.

Michael lights a Marlboro 100 cigarette and blows the smoke up in the air, reminiscing on the days when he brought cubs into the station and allowed customers to pet them and help feed them.

“We got criticized for that,” he says. “But I thought it was a wonderful thing. How many people get to help feed or pet a tiger. I have some wonderful memories, not just personal, but bonding with my customers, that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

“It’s just something that has been a real joy for a lot of people,” he continues. “I understand their position, but I guess I miss the opportunity of ever being able to do that again.”

Over at the tiger cage, a crowd has gathered around to watch Tony, who has moved over and is occasionally rolling around in the grassy part of his enclosure. One man comments that he’s never seen him so active. Another teenage kid asks, “What’s his name? Tony? Like the cereal?”

Larry Stample, a truck driver from St. Petersburg, Fla., carries a small box of Broaster chicken strips and an energy drink he just purchased. Looking up at the “Save the Tiger, Help us Keep the Tiger in Grosse Tete” banner that hangs on the fence, Stample speaks for the majority of the group when he says the Tiger Truck Stop ought to be able to keep Tony.

“This is their pet,” he says. “They’ve had [Tony] since he was born. Imagine somebody trying to take your pet away.”

Besides, Stample adds, animal rights groups like PETA are too fanatical. “They tell people don’t eat hamburgers and shit,” he says.

As Michael Sandlin walks over, he calls out to Tony, “Hey Tony, has Sky Williamson been coming around here and bothering you?”

He turns to make a more serious point. “If and when he ever goes anywhere,” Michael says. “It’ll be where I decide. Hell will freeze over before Big Cat Rescue gets him.

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