Since 2001, a 550-pound tiger named Tony has spent his life in a cage as a roadside attraction at Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete.

Going back to the late 1980s, when the business opened, the truck stop and its owner, Michael Sandlin, have been targeted by animal rights activists who say a busy truck stop with noisy, idling 18-wheelers is no place for Tony, or any of the handful of other tigers that preceded Tony.

Sandlin successfully fought off the animal activists for more than 20 years until May, when the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a national animal advocacy group, persuaded a Baton Rouge judge that the state has been improperly issuing Tiger Truck Stop the permits necessary to keep Tony on its premises.

The judge?s decision grew out of a lawsuit the defense fund filed taking aim at the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The suit cited a 2006 state law that prohibits private ownership of large and exotic cats.

The law includes a grandfathered exception allowing 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 rights group argued Tony was not legally owned by the truck stop before that date because a 1993 Iberville Parish ordinance prohibited owning ?wild, exotic or vicious animals for display or for exhibition.??

The defense fund attorneys further asserted that state permits can be issued only to individuals, not corporations, and that the individual must live on the premises.

?Mr. Sandlin and Tiger Truck Stop should be required to abide by the rules,? state District Judge Mike Caldwell of 19th Judicial District held in his ruling.

The most recent annual permit Wildlife and Fisheries issued to the truck stop was dated December 2010, meaning Tony, the Siberian-Bengal mix, can remain at Tiger Truck Stop until December, but must leave when that deadline is reached.

Sandlin promised this month to appeal Caldwell?s decision to a higher court, but in the past, he has said he?s open to relocating Tony to a wildlife sanctuary at some point in the future as the tiger ages or if it becomes ill.

Employees with Big Cat Rescue, an animal sanctuary in Tampa, Fla., home to 117 large cats, have been working for years to have Tony removed from the truck stop.

Big Cat Rescue?s chief executive officer, Carole Baskin, said the sanctuary has had a spot reserved for Tony since 2009.

Tony lives in an air-conditioned exhibit that Sandlin says is 40 feet wide by 80 feet long and surrounded by a chain link fence and metal bars.

Tony?s ?house? is a concrete enclosure resembling a large doghouse, equipped with an automated water fountain from which the tiger drinks. The tiger has a large grassy area about the size of a suburban back yard with a small, portable pool in which to play.

On Thursday, Baskin contrasted Tony?s habitat with the amenities the tiger presumably would enjoy at Big Cat Rescue.

The facility has a number of tiger enclosures ranging in size from 1,200 square feet to three acres, all overlooking a waterfall and an 18-acre lake, she said.

Each tiger on the compound has access to a pool with fresh water cycling in continually from the lake, Baskin said.

The enclosures are thick with foliage and offer downed trees for tigers to scratch. there are large earthen hills covered with grass. Tiger dens are lined with plants and straw for insulation, she said.

The rescued tigers are housed separately but in view of each other, thus allowing some interaction, she said.

Big Cat Rescue tigers are given toys scented with spices to sharpen their senses as well as rib bones for gnawing and keeping their teeth clean and healthy.

Sandlin counters that Tiger Truck Stop is the only home Tony has ever known.

But if the day arrives that Tiger Truck Stop can no longer exhibit its prized attraction, it?s nice to know Big Cat Rescue and other sanctuaries are ready and willing to take over the care and feeding of Tony the tiger.

Koran Addo covers Iberville, Pointe Coupee and West Baton Rouge parishes for The Advocate. He may be reached at kaddo@theadvocate.com.