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.
- The Trouble with Big Cat Rescue
Is Big Cat Rescue a crusader for captive big cats, or may there be two sides to this story? Interesting information about BCR's founder Carole Baskin, and what may truly be at the heart of the sanctuary's politics.
Sky's verbal fight with Sandlin supporters
Animal Rights Activist BullyingClick thumbnail to view full-size
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.
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.
- What is an Exotic Pet?
When people say "wild animals are not pets", what does it mean? What is an exotic or wild pet? The terms are too often used presumptuously, and these misconceptions are damaging to pet owners. Not all exotic pets are difficult to care for and potenti
- Banning Exotic Pets Is Senseless
Exotic animal keeping has come under more fire than ever before thanks to a recent incident in Ohio. When are animal bans justified?
- Exotic Pet Headlines: Pet Ownership Still Under Siege, What Else is New?
Exotic pet ownership has come under fire across North America. Here are some headlines that illustrate some problems with the way people view other people's pets and the rules/laws that are conceived to regulate this "threat". People should have the
More by this Author
After the late Steve Irwin was accused of animal exploitation and even fueling the exotic pet trade, Bindi Irwin is now under fire for becoming an Ambassador for SeaWorld.
Tanked is a show that gives Animal Planet good ratings, but what message is it sending? I will review the show as well as its potential negative impacts on the aquarium hobby.
Here’s one unique pet that is legal in each individual state in the United States.