Tony the Tiger looks out of his cage at the Tiger Truck Stop on June 20, 2014, in Grosse Tete. Gov. Bobby Jindal quietly signed into law Senate Bill 250, granting an exception for the tiger, who is kept in a caged facility at the truck stop.

Advocate photo by LEE CELANO

The legal roller-coaster ride that Tony, the 550-pound Grosse Tete truck stop tiger, has been on the past several years continued to roll Monday with no foreseeable end in sight.

District Judge William Morvant, the third Baton Rouge state judge to handle Tony-related litigation, ruled that an animal rights group’s attack on a 2014 Louisiana law allowing the Bengal tiger to stay at his roadside enclosure in Iberville Parish belongs in front of another judge presiding over the truck stop’s 2012 suit against the state and parish.

The national nonprofit Animal Legal Defense Fund contends the law passed in June is unconstitutional because it gives preferential treatment to the owner of Tony, the 14-year-old tiger.

In his 2012 suit, Tiger Truck Stop owner Michael Sandlin claims that both a 1993 Iberville ordinance forbidding anyone from owning wild, exotic or vicious animals for display or exhibition, and a 2006 state law barring private ownership of large and exotic cats, are unconstitutional.

District Judge Janice Clark is presiding over Sandlin’s suit, which was delayed for months while various state courts weighed in on District Judge Mike Caldwell’s 2011 ruling — in another Animal Legal Defense Fund suit — that Tony was not permitted by Louisiana law to remain at the truck stop. Caldwell said the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries violated its own rules by exempting Sandlin and his truck stop from permit requirements for owners of big cats.

Morvant on Monday cited the case before Clark and the potential for inconsistent rulings in dismissing the 2014 suit that former state Rep. Warren Triche Jr., the sponsor of Louisiana’s 2006 big cat ban, and two Louisiana residents filed this summer against the state, Tiger Truck Stop and Sandlin; however, the judge said the case can be refiled.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, which represents Triche and his fellow plaintiffs in that suit, was allowed by Clark in mid-2012 to intervene in the suit that Sandlin and Tiger Truck Stop filed against Wildlife and Fisheries and Iberville Parish in early 2012.

Morvant said the Animal Legal Defense Fund needs to raise its constitutional challenge of the 2014 law in Clark’s court. The group pledged to file the same arguments before Clark.

Jennifer Treadway Nixon, an attorney for Sandlin and his truck stop, referred to the Animal Legal Defense Fund during Monday’s hearing as “activists with a political agenda” and argued the group has no legal right to challenge the new law. Their agenda, she said, is to have no animals in enclosures.

Animal Legal Defense Fund attorney Nicole Eichberger countered that the individual plaintiffs in the 2014 suit are Louisiana taxpayers, not activists.

Tony was living at the truck stop several years before the state’s 2006 big cat ban went into effect. That law included a grandfather exception that allowed people to keep exotic cats as pets as long as the animals were legally owned before Aug. 15, 2006, when the law took effect.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund argues Tony was not legally owned by Tiger Truck Stop before that date because the 1993 Iberville ordinance prohibited such ownership.

Sandlin says he has held a federal permit to keep tigers at the truck stop since 1988. He has exhibited tigers at his truck stop since 1984. The truck stop’s last annual state permit to house tigers expired at the end of 2011.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund objects to Tony’s care at the truck stop and wants him sent to a wildlife sanctuary. Sandlin says the tiger has a swimming pool, an air-conditioned den and a grassy play area.

Sandlin, who attended Monday’s court hearing in Morvant’s courtroom, said afterward that he won’t let the Animal Legal Defense Fund or the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries tell him what to do.

“Wildlife and Fisheries, they don’t need to be the one regulating exotic animals,” he said. “They don’t have the decades of experience (that the federal government has). They have no business regulating exotic animals.”

Animal Legal Defense Fund attorney Carney-Anne Nasser, who attended the hearing, said outside the courtroom that the 2014 state law cannot pass constitutional muster.

“It’s impermissible to pass a law for one individual or entity,” she said.

The 2014 law allows Sandlin to keep only Tony. He cannot obtain more tigers, even after Tony dies.

Sandlin, who is suing the state for discrimination, wants the option of buying a companion for Tony or a successor.