Tony the Truck Stop Tiger Controversy

The story of Tony the truck stop tiger is controversial, seemingly interminable, and has evolved into something larger than the sum of its parts. What began as a conflict with concerned activists over the living situation of a single tiger kept on the premises of a service station has erupted into a massive controversy among exotic animal keepers and those that are against it. Even many who possess little interest in the divisive battle may have heard of the ‘plight’ of Tony the tiger’s confinement at the truck stop, and the stories of alleged welfare violations illicit a despondent reaction from most.

What makes this spotlighted story interesting is the attention it has garnered over the years. It would be easy to mistaken this situation as one of the most pressing and concerning violations of animal welfare still impending resolution. Is Tony’s care as abominable as it is so often made out to be, and would you have to be an ice-hearted, selfish, empathy-lacking reptile to support the position that the tiger should stay where he is? The answer is not as clear-cut as many would think.

Tony's Entire Encloure? A Swift Deception.

Tony's Story: A Timeline of Conflict

For those who are unfamiliar with the twists and turns, the Tiger Truck Stop, based in Louisiana and owned by Michael Sandlin, has a history peppered with legal hassles and outcry from special interests groups, namely from advocates of the popular ‘sanctuary’ Big Cat Rescue and the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Along with these groups, violations from the USDA have also been issued to the facility in the past, but the seriousness of these citations are overwrought. Sandlin, who had previously based his exotic animal exhibiting truck stop in Texas, moved the facility to Louisiana in 1988.

Over the years Sandlin possessed and produced several tigers at the location. Breeding them occasionally, he also engaged in other now controversial practices such as selling them to ‘zoos’. Unfortunately for Sandlin in 1993, Iberville Parish passed an ordinance that outlawed the display of “wild” animals, and this was the cusp of his legal troubles in eventually losing his permit to keep Tony.

When an exotic animal ban came into effect for the entire state of Louisiana in 2007, permits for animals owned before 2006 were only issued to owners who possessed their animals legally, in which Sandlin had not done so due his to non-compliance with the parish’s previous ban. On November 17, 2008, Sandlin was ordered to find a new home for the animal outside of Louisiana.

Big Cat Rescue, already concerned with the facility’s past discrepancies, offered to take the tiger, but Sandlin wouldn’t budge. He filed a restraining order against Louisiana Wild Life and Fisheries to stop them from taking the cat, and attended the Iberville Parish to ask that the original 1993 law be amended so he could continue owning Tony. In the case, owner of Big Cat Rescue Carole Baskin and Sky Williamson also weighed in with their opinions of aversion for the tigers’ living conditions along with supporters and signed petitions.

So far, we understand here that Tony’s order for removal was never about inadequate conditions and gas fumes from trucks, but non-compliance with an earlier exotic animal ban that forced exhibitors to give up their animals if they weren’t “zoological parks, performing animal exhibitions, circuses or veterinary clinics” as outlined by the rule. In other words, Tony was not generating income by jumping through hoops of fire and did not qualify for such an exemption. This is one aspect of the issue that I feel is not really understood. Why were the anti-captivity opinions of Big Cat Rescue’s affiliates relevant in the case? Clearly, the ban that eventually led to the success of invaliding Sandlin’s permit was not one they would agree with in the least bit because of its circus and ‘performing animal’ exemption. It is well-known that Big Cat Rescue is against, and seeks to end, all big cat and wildlife captivity of any kind, from my privately owned genet to top of the line professional zoological institutions.

Sky's verbal fight with Sandlin supporters

Animal Rights Activist Bullying

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Mature rant via Sky "From the brainless 18 year old who still has a pink room like a little girl"
Mature rant via Sky
Mature rant via Sky
"From the brainless 18 year old who still has a pink room like a little girl"
"From the brainless 18 year old who still has a pink room like a little girl"

Swaying Emotions

Sky Williamson and Big Cat Rescue successfully propelled the Tony situation into the media. Who is Sky Williamson? Owner of the Facebook page Tony the Tiger (which is now defunct), which is fully dedicated to the matter, Williamson is partly responsible for the numerous public backlash. She can be seen giving her opinions on Tony’s case in videos uploaded by BCR. She sounds calm and informed in her testimony, which makes some of her Facebook rants surprising. In response to the then 17-year old circus life-living and big cat owner Felicia Frisco, she has made bullying comments on her public Facebook page and on other media.

In another video depicting an event after the court case, Williamson again demonstrates her temper in response to a shouted comment by Sandlin or one of his supporters while she was commenting to a news reporter. A verbal brawl quickly escalated.

Statements such as “Its part of our family!” by Sandlin’s family/employees were responded with comments by Williamson such as “An endangered tiger is not family” and “Tigers are not pets.” She also points her finger condescendingly and retorts “People like you don’t belong having animals as pets”. In fact, I’ve just recently discovered that about a year ago, she had responded to one of my anger-induced comments on the Youtube video where I spoke of the possibility that people like her would decide to campaign to remove any of my animals that they deemed I shouldn’t keep (and I spoke of reptiles here, not big cats). Her reply:

“BREAKING NEWS:... The Pity Train has just derailed at the intersection of Suck It Up & Move On, and crashed into We All Have Problems, before coming to a complete stop at Get the Heck Over It. Any complaints about how we operate can be forwarded to 1-800-waa-aaah with Dr. Sniffle Reporting LIVE from Quitchur Bitchin'.”

I gather that this comment means that if I lose my animals and my chosen lifestyle ends, that I should get over it and move on. Not to make the matter overly personal, but I feel this provides important insight on the mindsets of Big Cat Rescue’s affiliates and how they view pet keepers. While keeping certain pets is controversial, many of these people feel that they know the ‘true’ truth, and we should shut up and comply with it, which I find at best incredibly arrogant and unethical. Also noteworthy, is that BCR will allow such snide commentary for their cause on the comments section, and seem to no longer allow us to reply back.

Tony's enclosure
Tony's enclosure

A visitor rails against a 'disturbing display'

Big Cat Rescue cleverly makes Tony’s enclosure look horrendously confined, wet, and unattractive. They air sounds of revving trucks over the footage to enhance their complaint of Tony’s close proximity to the trucks and highway. In reality, however, his enclosure is not as close to the road as is wanted you to perceive. Where are the photos of Tony’s enclosure with a good camera angle to reveal exactly where the automobiles are? They don’t exist for a reason.

I originally assumed the complaints about Tony’s situation were valid, but when I found out that this fact was intentionally misrepresented, I became skeptical. I firmly believe that if you’re right on your position, you won’t have the need to lie or misrepresent facts. In addition, doing so even for a good cause is wrong. Another misrepresentation; many think Tony lives exclusively on cement. The incriminating videos make a point of never showing the animal in the grassy part of the cage. I was always confused and wondered if the grass next to the cemented section of the enclosure was accessible to him or it was just a standing area for humans. Lo and behold, the tiger frequents the area in other visitor videos, and the cage does appear reasonably sized in my opinion. Seeing as I’ve vehemently spoke out against other facilities such as Guzoo and have received backlash for it, my standards for zoos are not biased to approve every private owner. I believe the opposite, that bad owners and bad zoos are one of the biggest enemies of good animal caretakers.

Big Cat Rescues continues in the video to lampoon the Tony situation, even emphasizing something trivial: that a stuffed white tiger is kept above the salad bar at the truck stop's restaurant. I honestly don’t care where Sandlin chooses to keep a deceased taxidermy tiger. Whether or not one thinks it is tacky doesn’t have relevance or say in whether Sandlin should have his right revoked or not.

The point I’m driving at here is certainly not to glorify the past and present actions of Sandlin. As a person who devotes much thought into the captive care of numerous animal species, I find myself disagreeing with some of the statements made by supporters of Tony’s captivity and many of the past actions that have taken place at the truck stop, such as the breeding and selling of cubs, which now due to stronger regulations have stopped taking place. In the video uploaded by Sandlin's supporters called "The TRUTH about Tony", it is mentioned that Tony's enclosure is "4 times the recommended minimum size for such animals". Actually, it is not 'recommended', but a minimum standard that a tiger keeper must abide by. The USDA standards for enclosure size are sadly very poor. I wouldn't approve of Tony's living conditions if they were 1/4 the size of his current enclosure.

In addition, Sandlin has statements on the Tiger Truck Stop’s website that are equally misleading, such as a statement that reads “Animal activists from out of state are trying to send our hand-raised, never in the wild, family member to a wild game preserve somewhere.”

I’m not certain what “wild game preserve” is being discussed. Big Cat Rescue to this day still has an enclosure ready for Tony, apparently with a pool and lakeside view. Sounds pretty nifty, but I’m wondering if so many ex-pets are searching for homes, why the rescue has committed to preserving a space for a tiger that already has one.

The answer is that Tony’s story has enlisted a helping of publicity, and BCR is still asking that Sandlin, who on May 6th, 2011 lost the right to keep Tony when a judge ordered the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to permanently stop renewing his permit, send Tony to their facility so they may declare victory after the long fight. Does anyone with half a brain still believe that Sandlin, who has been heckled by the rescue for over a decade, will send his animal to their facility when, or if he gives up Tony? It’s not happening, and the sheer idea that he would do so is testament again to their arrogance. So where is Tony supposed to be going?

Tony is pegged to be sent to G.W. Exotic Memorial park, owned by none other than the foul-mouthed Joe “Joe Exotic” Schreibvogel, who is probably even more hated by Big Cat Rescue due to his controversial business of exhibiting young tiger cubs in malls (a practice which I do not support) and his support of private pet ownership (which I do support).

So are activists in this matter satisfied with this result? They seemed to have succeeded in swaying the judge to remove the tiger from his reasonable existence; to another one I’m sure they will take issue with. I will not claim that Tony lived in a paradise, and I will say, unlike many exotic animal owners, that I think Big Cat Rescue would be a nicer place for him. But where do we draw the line in, due to our own personal preferences, insisting that people’s animals or rights are removed?

A Retort from Tony's Owners

I have felt that Guzoo Animal Farm in Alberta, Canada is too over crowded for a person not educated on wildlife care, and if the owner is not willing to run the zoo professionally, that he should down-size or be shut down. But Sandlin’s sole tiger, which is also an important contribution to his business, is being misrepresented by activist groups because his enclosure is not ideal (and in fact, they possess the romanticized notion that wild animals cannot be content in captivity). Many dog owners don’t give their animals the attention they deserve, and some even leave them outside for long, lonely periods. I wish these people wouldn’t own dogs, but I’m not going to insist that the government or any other party evict their animals on those grounds. I’m sure many parents also have crappy parenting habits, but sending a child to CPS is a serious, serious decision. I think that people can be surprised how dedicated some pet owners are, as I for one, can find what I consider inadequate and unethical practices among conventional pet owners of domesticated animals. Their mouths would be left agape if I were able to remove any animal I felt was being unfairly treated or unethically used.

What’s unfortunate is that the right to own animals, or possess animals in business, is dangling by a thread because activists are dominating the uneducated. Exotic animal owners such as myself are ‘little people’ because there are very few of us. Organizations like Big Cat Rescue will pursue their assaults on animal ownership until they win. Many of their supporters are highly unaware that Big Cat Rescue has openly admitted to their ultimate goal of eliminating wild animals from captivity in the same way that reptile owners are unaware that their donations to the Humane Society of the United States go to fund lobbying efforts to restrict their pets into non-existence. Much of the support for Tony is well-intentioned, but it is important to get both sides of the story before succumbing to the biases of anti-captivity groups.

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Comments 21 comments

GEMO 4 years ago

Sounds like 'Big Brother' at work to me! Sure, perhaps rules and regulations governing exotic animal ownership of animals that absolutely do not belong in the private sector; animal species with a reputation for being dangerous or lethal. To group all exotic animals into one category is the lazy man’s out and too imposing on people, in general. Where is the line going to be drawn between our rights as citizens in the United States and the Government dictating our every whim with consequences? Not fair; and, I don’t like it at all; and, neither should you. If people do not unite and take a stand to protect themselves against Government enactments, we, the people of the United States will eventually become victims of a dictatorship, our Government. The Government cannot even control themselves; so, why allow them to get into our business? I feel the same way about State Governments. We are allowing the Governments to herd us around like sheep, and doing nothing to stop their interference in our rights as citizens in what is supposed to be a free Country. Agreed and accepted, regulations of animals that plainly do not belong in a private home should be scrutinized; but again, to lump all exotic species under one big umbrella is just plain stupid! All the Government is doing is making its’ citizens go underground to get away from its’ control, because if someone wants an illegal pet, they’re going to do whatever it takes to have what they want. There has to be a compromise between the entities of you and me. Use your brains people! Fight for your rights.


Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 4 years ago from New York Author

Thank you for commenting GEMO, my article for the most part supports what you are saying.


Donna 4 years ago

I am happy to know that publicity hound Carole Baskin and her Big Cat Rescue will not be "declaring a victory" by taking possession of Tony the tiger. No one suspected of forgery, perjury, and even murder should ever be glorified in the media as this hypocrite is. The truth about Big Cat Rescue is told by her former staff at bigcatrescuelies.blogspot.com.


Debra 4 years ago

GEMO that is exactly what I keep telling people. This is NOT JUST about exotic animals it is about our rights being taken away from us while most are cluelessly

allowing it to happen. Just because the current agenda doesn't effect them that doesn't mean the next agenda (perhaps "domestic" pets) won't!


Shaddie profile image

Shaddie 4 years ago from Washington state

Amen!


habee profile image

habee 4 years ago from Georgia

Athough I believe that animal rights groups often do good work, I think sometimes they go on "witch hunts." Tony's cage is much more adequate than they represented. I think this was a fair, balanced article.


Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 4 years ago from New York Author

Thank you Habee, these activists really have just one thing in mind: to remove animals from private ownership. They just start from the bottom up. Thanks for commenting.


lisa 4 years ago

Melissa is there a way for me to contact you I want to share something, not about tony but a related almost identical story


Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 4 years ago from New York Author

Lisa, sure, my email is gsmith9072@aol.com


Saera 3 years ago

I agree completely habee:) great comment!


Denise 3 years ago

I have myself been to see Tony personally. I stumbled across him while gassing up on the way to NOLA -- I innocently stopped at a humble seeming "Tiger Stop", and I remember saying the words out loud when I processed what I saw -- "HOLY #$&@, THERE IS ACTUALLY A TIGER AT THE TIGER STOP". Then I remember commenting to my then boyfriend that "Well his cage seems roomy, and he has a ball." Little did I know that I was meeting a media sensation and celebrity. Tony's enclosure, though perhaps a bit bare (Although, if memory serves, and I've seen him quite a few times now, he has a large ball and some other toys, and places to climb) is quite large. Meaning, his "cage" is larger than my two bed-room townhouse. This Christmas, I talked to the family that owns him. They say BCR wants him not to rescue him, but for the white tiger genes he possesses. And BCR has been accused of breeding cats to sell on more than one occasion. I did, as well as my boyfriend, sign a petition to help keep Tony in the home he has always known and not end up in the clutches of the BCR. This is not some crime against nature, people. He's got a lot of room and personal space -- he is not imprisoned in some tiny cell -- I have seen this with my own eyes and not from some video with tear-jerking rhetoric.


Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 3 years ago from New York Author

Hi Denise, I'm not so sure about Tony's white tiger genes, I think BCR started a campaign that they are now desperate to end because they made such a fuss and advertised this to their devoted followers, who want a 'happy' ending. I'm hopeful that even if Tony is forcibly removed he will not end up at BCR. There are likely other tigers that need saving other than Tony, whose enclosure is not violating current animal welfare principals. He is habituated to the 'truck stop' and is not suffering despite the rampant anthropomorphism directed at him. Thanks for also visiting my Big Cat Rescue post. They no longer breed and sell but they do support draconian laws that will ban pets and they hope to end the existence of big cats in any form of captivity--an extremist animal rights position that will be negative for both parties involved.


Bill 3 years ago

The fact that you think it is your "right" to own a Tiger is even more appalling than one living in a cage on the side of the road. I don't care how big the cage is or how many toys he has to play with... that is completely idiotic and I am glad that the general attitude in this country is shifting away from exotic pet ownership.

I find it laughable that this is considered a debatable topic. No one should personally own an animal like a Tiger.


Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 3 years ago from New York Author

I see absolutely no reason why shouldn't be able to maintain big cats if they have the resources and experience as well as if they comply with regulations. It's debatable how good an owner Sandlin is but his tiger(s) were bought before the bans and I see nothing alarming enough to warrant a seizure. The Bronx Zoo has thousands of animals that live 'by the side of the road'.


Bill 3 years ago

Exactly my point - as long as the regulations permit it and you comply then I suppose people will. I am just amazed that it was ever made permissible in the first place. A tiger has no place in a cage, regardless of whatever political bill passed however many years ago. It is patently unethical. They shouldn't be able to maintain big cats because big cats thrive in open environments. Don't get me wrong either ... I think its just as criminal to keep a Labrador in a single bedroom apartment and not run it daily. Furthermore I agree with your assessment of the Bronx Zoo. A penguin has no business in New York.


Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 3 years ago from New York Author

The Bronx Zoo animals seem to thrive and have outdoor access and space like a 'run everyday' labrador, in fact more. I don't see why a penguin couldn't thrive in New York like any other place.


Alex 2 years ago

BCR says we need to "free Tony". How is relocating him to another enclose is "freeing" him?


Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 2 years ago from New York Author

In their minds, they just want him freed from the gas station.


ManNewt 16 months ago

While I was checking one of the sky williamson's (lower case intended) facebook pics that are on this article I saw the comment made by some jeanette lady F.Frisco a silly b**ch and then call Frisco selfish and thoughtless. The hypocrissy and the stupidity of that comment made me laugh.


Sky Williamson 15 months ago

Man Newt I'm sorry that you have so much time on your hands but the fact is I have not had a facebook account in many years. As for Tony and his situation learn the facts before you voice your opinion. Animal cruelty is Animal Cruelty regardless of what kind of any it is.


ManNewt 15 months ago

Well sky (or troll), I did read this article so it is extremely stupid of you to tell me to learn about this situation. As for the picture with the facebook page, right next to to the profile picture that vaguely spells out "stop private ownership" it does spell out the exact name of the person who is commenting to me claiming that she does not has a facebook account. Speaking of animal cruelty tell me more about this "what kind of any" of animal cruelty. Have you ever faced legitimate cruelty or "bad things" happen to you as a human being, because there is human cruelty around the world that needs attention when compared to a privately owned tiger that used to have decent care.

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