GROSSE TETE — Animal welfare advocates aren't happy about the Tiger Truck Stop's recent acquisition of a camel and baby coati, but state lawmakers, Iberville Parish officials and the village's mayor say they are staying out of the fight.
Animal activists who argue Michael Sandlin's roadside truck stop isn't suitable for the captivity of any animal — exotic or domestic — say they think authorities need to do something to stop him.
"Obviously we’re disappointed Tiger Truck Stop is going to continue to exploit animals to try and promote his business," said Tony Eliseuson, senior staff attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund. "I would hope they would step up and do something about it."
But federal, state and local officials say there is nothing they can do.
Sandlin is a licensed exhibitor through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal Welfare Act who has met all the state's health requirements regarding the procurement of his two newest animals.
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And Michael Chauffe, mayor of Grosse Tete, says there are no ordinances on the books regulating the number of exotic animals in the town limits.
"We haven't gotten any complaints and no one has said anything to me about the camel being there," Chauffe said. "I don't have a problem with it as long as they maintain the animal's habitat."
Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, and Rep. Chad Brown, D-Plaquemine, shared similar sentiments, each saying they have no plans of introducing bills in the state Legislature that could block Sandlin from adopting more animals and possibly expanding the facility at his truck stop to include a petting zoo and alligator exhibit.
Ward said he fears that trying to prevent Sandlin from obtaining more animals through legislation would be an overreach on the part of state government.
Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso said he's confident of Sandlin's ability to properly care for any animal he has on-site, while Matt Jewell, chairman of the Parish Council, said the business owner has always had the support of local residents.
Jewell noted that opposition to Sandlin's latest animal exhibit is mostly coming from outsiders.
"If something happens and it becomes a health hazard, then we would have to step in," Jewell said. "I wish we could go into these communities and tell them what to do, but we can't. If there is no law preventing him from having them, I don't see a problem with it myself."
Caspar the camel has taken the place of Tony the tiger — for now.
As it stands, Sandlin is blocked only from procuring another tiger due to a 2006 state law banning private ownership of large and exotic cats.
That ban was part of the lobbying efforts of the Animal Legal Defense Fund sparked by Sandlin's past ownership of Tony the tiger, a more than 500-pound Bengal tiger that was on display in a cage at the truck stop for nearly two decades.
Tony was exempt from the state's 2006 ban on exotic cats because he had been living at the truck stop since 2001. But the ban prevented Sandlin from acquiring another tiger after Tony was euthanized in October at the age of 17 after experiencing kidney failure.
Sandlin has challenged the constitutionality of Louisiana's big cat ban and a state judge is set to rule on in the coming months.
Tony, the tiger housed for 17 years as a roadside attraction at the Tiger Truck Stop in the Iberville Parish community of Grosse Tete, has bee…
But in the meantime, the business owner said, he refuses to let animal welfare advocates bully him.
Because he couldn't get another tiger, Sandlin said he decided to bring in the camel and baby coati, which is a member of the raccoon family native to South and Central America.
And last week he told The Advocate he plans to expand the facility to include an alligator exhibit and a petting zoo featuring goats, ducks and other small animals.
"We’re just getting started," Sandlin said. "Nobody likes to be pushed around. I stood up and fought where most people wouldn’t have been able to fight. They just would have surrendered their animals or packed up and fled the state."
Sandlin said he already has spent close to $1.5 million in his fight to lift the state's ban on private ownership of exotic cats.
"And it’s not about the money; it’s the principle of it," he said. "They tried to take my legally obtained property away from me and not even compensate me. This is a violation of personal freedoms."
Sandlin continued, "I always felt like if they can just come and take the tiger away from that truck stop that they can come into anybody’s home or business and take whatever they want and there’s nothing we can do about it."
As a USDA licensed animal exhibitor, Sandlin must adhere to unannounced inspections by federal wildlife agents who are often certified veterinarians.
According to USDA inspection guidelines, exhibitors are required to provide adequate housing and ventilation, maintain high sanitation standards and offer proper protection in outdoor enclosures.
The most recent inspection reports posted on the USDA database for Tiger Truck Stop show that Sandlin has received mostly spotless results on inspections that were conducted between July 2015 and June 2017 — when Tony was housed on-site.
The only time he was cited in the past three years was when inspectors noted that the metal fencing surrounding Tony's enclosure had rusted, according to a July 28, 2016, report.
But Eliseuson said Sandlin hasn't always been in compliance, referring to past violations in 2009 that prompted the parish to add language mandating Tony's enclosure be better maintained. The parish's moves came during the peak of Sandlin's feud with animal rights groups.
Veronica Musgrove, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry, said last week the camel and coati met all health requirements upon entering the state, and she said Sandlin had all the proper documentation to keep the animals at the truck stop.
"None of our laws were broken," she said.
Lisa Wathne, manager of captive wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States, said just because Sandlin's recent actions are legal, doesn't mean state officials shouldn't get involved and do the right thing.
"A truck stop is not the appropriate place for any animal, whether it's a tiger or a camel," she said. "That's not a facility that can provide for animals appropriately. In this case, our best hope is that the public will continue to come out strongly against this. There are so many things he could do at the truck stop to attract tourists that would be much more attractive than a camel."
Sandlin, meanwhile, vows to continue his legal fight to acquire another tiger, saying he's not about to give in to "extremists" who call themselves animal welfare advocates.