Had at least 13 predecessors in 30 years
IBERVILLE PARISH, Louisiana––Tony, 17, the latest and perhaps the last of a succession of at least 13 tigers exhibited for 30 years at the Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete, Iberville Parish, Louisiana, was euthanized due to advanced kidney failure on the evening of October 16, 2017.
Tiger Truck Stop owner Michael Sandlin told Baton Rouge Advocate reporter Terry L. Jones that he intends to have Tony’s remains taxidermically mounted, to keep on display alongside Selene, a tiger who in life was exhibited with Tony until her death from pancreatic cancer at age three and a half.
Added Sandlin, “I’m probably going to file an emergency writ to asking the court to allow me to bring in another cat,” pending the outcome of related litigation already before the courts.
Baton Rouge Advocate reporter Lea Skene said Tony’s death was disclosed in a written statement issued by local publicist Ted Baldwin, “apparently on behalf of Sandlin.”
Wrote Skene, “Sandlin back in April 2017 denied that Tony was suffering and said the tiger was seen regularly by a veterinarian, limped from arthritis and only had loose stools after getting anti-worm medicine.”
“Old man with some arthritis”
Said Sandlin at the time, “He is not sick. He is simply an old man with some arthritis.”
Continued Skene, “Like people with arthritis, Sandlin said, Tony would wake up a bit stiff and loosened up during the day. He lived in a cage with a grassy area, a large water tank to swim in, a hanging tire and other toys.
“A necropsy will be done by veterinarians to learn more about Tony’s illness,” Skene reported.
Six months old when Sandlin acquired him in January 2001, Tony came to the Tiger Truck Stop amid a long-running series of efforts by animal advocates and public officials to close the truck stop animal exhibits, begun with the passage of a 1996 Iberville Parish ordinance against keeping “wild, exotic, and vicious animals.”
Animal Welfare Act violations
Sandlin had four tigers as of 2003, when he was cited for multiple violations of the federal animal welfare act. Sandlin subsequently sent three of the tigers to the Tiger Haven sanctuary in Tennessee. Tony, however, remained at the Tiger Truck Stop despite state legislation against private possession of dangerous wildlife passed in 2006.
The 2006 law was eventually upheld, against Sandlin’s challenge, by the Louisiana First Court of Appeals and Louisiana Supreme Court, but was undercut after Sandlin won an exemption from the Louisiana legislature in June 2014.
Midway through the court battle, responding to information she received from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries, Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin anticipated in 2009 that Tony would be surrendered to her. She drove a truck from the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary on the eastern edge of Tampa, Florida, to Grosse Tete, only to discover that Sandlin had elected to keep Tony and keep fighting the law.
“What I’d like to say isn’t printable”
“What I’d like to say isn’t printable,” Baskin told ANIMALS 24-7 after Tony’s death. “What I will say is that for the past 17 years the most common pleas for help we received were from motorists who were shocked, and often tearful that a tiger was being used as a prop to help sell gas at an Interstate gas station. Big Cat Rescue was the first organization in history to hire a lawyer to represent a tiger,” Baskin said, “but the Louisiana legislature changed their laws, after the fact, to enable this egregious act to continue.
Finished Baskin, “Shout out to the Animal Legal Defense Fund,” a national organization that helped Big Cat Rescue in lawsuits filed seeking to obtain Tony, “and all of Tony’s supporters, who never gave up on him. Knowing Tony is gone both leaves a hole in my heart and yet gives me some relief, as I no longer will be feeling helpless to help him escape his torment.”
“The Animal Legal Defense Fund is deeply saddened by the death of Tony, the Siberian-Bengal tiger held captive in the Tiger Truck Stop parking lot,” said ALDF publicist Natalie Lima. “For more than seven years, we litigated on many fronts to free Tony. We are frustrated and angered that Tony continued to suffer at the Tiger Truck Stop, even after the Animal Legal Defense Fund successfully obtained a judgment in 2012 prohibiting Louisiana from issuing any future permits for Tony’s captivity.
“That judgment should have required the State of Louisiana to move Tony to a reputable sanctuary,” Lima said, “where he could have lived for the last five years in the naturalistic environment he deserved. Rather than giving Tony the life he deserved, however, the Louisiana legislature passed a law exempting the Tiger Truck Stop—and the Tiger Truck Stop alone—from the Louisiana big cat ban, undoing our victory in court and trapping Tony at the truck stop. Despite our best efforts, we were unable to get that corrupt legislative maneuver declared unconstitutional in time to save Tony.
“We will continue to fight with vigor to uphold the constitutionality of Louisiana’s big cat ban,” Lima pledged. “A victory in this litigation will ensure that Tony will be the last tiger to suffer at the Truck Stop and there will never be a Tony II or Tony III who will have to suffer the same fate.”
“Tiger University Consortium”
Within hours of the announcement of Tony’s death, Louisiana State University in nearby Baton Rouge announced that it “has launched a new fundraising campaign aimed at helping students’ efforts to save the school’s mascot — the tiger — in the wild,” linked to “to university participation in the U.S. Tiger University Consortium.”
Also participating in the consortium are Auburn University, Clemson University and the University of Missouri. All four universities have live tiger mascots and have initiated tiger conservation programs in response to complaints about their use of live mascots.
Louisiana State University in August 2017 introduced Mike VII, the seventh in a series of live tiger mascots that began with Mike I, first exhibited at the school by trainer Chellis Mike Chambers in 1934. Chambers sold Mike I to the university for $750 in 1936. Students were dunned 25¢ each to fund the purchase.
Exhibited on football field
“The first Mike the Tiger established the game-time ritual of rolling him onto the football field sidelines aboard a wheeled cage festooned with waving cheerleaders,” recounted Robert Travis Scott of the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2005. “Visiting athletes have to run past him when they enter the field from the locker room. Just before kickoff, Mike roars into a stadium microphone to the crowd’s raucous approval. Mike also appears at basketball games.”
Most of the Mikes have been long-lived, as tigers go. Mike III, purchased in 1958, was the last who was not acquired from a nonprofit institution at least claiming to be a sanctuary.
From 400 square feet to 15,000
“The first Mike lived in a 400-square-foot cage,” Scott wrote, “and it wasn’t until Mike
IV in 1981 that a new 1,100-square-foot habitat and cage were placed between the football stadium and the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.”
Mike V, who arrived in 1990, was moved in 2005 into the present 15,000-square-foot LSU tiger habitat. Mike V was euthanized due to renal failure in May 2007, and was succeeded by Mike VI later that year.
Mike VI was euthanized in late 2016 due to advanced spindle cell sarcoma. The current Louisiana State University tiger mascot, an 11-month-old cub formerly named Harvey, arrived in August 2017 from the Wild At Heart Wildlife Center in Okeechobee, Florida.
Founded as Animal Adventures in 2011 by Mary Sue Pearce, who reportedly bred and sold exotic wildlife including tigers, the facility was sold to Jeremy and Jamie Hargett in December 2016. Pearce had flunked a series of USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service and Florida Wildlife Commission inspection visits and “signed a Deferred Prosecution Agreement following a hearing in Glades County court,” wrote Okeechobee News online editor Katrina Elskin. The agreement required Pearce to divest of the animals.
“Numerous violations pertaining to the record keeping, housing and care of captive wildlife were observed,” Elskin summarized, including “failure to provide animals with clean water daily, failure to keep cages and enclosures free of feces, and as issues involving the sizes and security of some enclosures.
“Florida Wildlife Commission investigator Richard Doricchi noted violations involving the care of American alligators, captive exotic birds, two African spurred tortoises, two coatimundis, a brown lemur, 13 tigers, a tigon (tiger/lion hybrid), three female lions, one male lion, a black bear, two cougars, two baboons, an iguana, a black leopard and a bobcat,” Elskin wrote.
New owners stop breeding
As well as changing the name of the institution to the Wild At Heart Wildlife Center, the Hargetts announced that they would immediately stop breeding animals, and would begin downsizing the animal inventory, while improving the physical facilities to meet federal and state inspection standards.
The Wild At Heart Wildlife Center suffered a setback in early September when hit by Hurricane Irma. After the Hargetts disclosed that lack of electricity was inhibiting animal care, Louisiana State University alumnus Del Moon expressed his appreciation of their donation of Mike VII to LSU by driving 300 miles to donate a new generator, Jeremy Krail of WBRZ reported.
The alumni clout of schools with tiger mascots extends even to the high school level, as then-Ohio governor Ted Strickland learned in 2009. Pledging to ban breeding and keeping exotic or dangerous animals as pets infuriated not only the exotic pet industry, but fans of the
Masillon Tigers, a high school football team that carries on the name, emblems, and mascot
tradition of one of the first pro football teams.
Strickland quickly amended his pledge to include an exemption for mascots.
The legislation that Strickland proposed was not actually enacted until after exotic animal collector Terry Thompson, of Zanesville, Ohio, released 56 lions, tigers, leopards, pumas, wolves, bears and monkeys before committing suicide on October 18, 2011.