By the time attorneys from the Animal Legal Defense Fund received the results of a records request for Tony the tiger’s veterinary checkup, it was too late.
The tiger — a truck stop attraction off Interstate 10 in Grosse Tete — was euthanized in October 2017 "to prevent Tony from suffering” following “typical signs that death was imminent," according to a statement from the owners.
Now the ALDF is fighting to ensure that those kinds of records requests are processed much faster, which the ALDF says could have a significant impact on the jurisdiction over the health and well-being of big cats and other animals around the U.S.
Tony’s death followed years-long litigation and court battles among the ALDF, Tony’s owners and state and federal government agencies in the ALDF’s attempts to move the Siberian-Bengal tiger, who was six months old when he moved to an enclosure at the truck stop in 2001, into a big cat sanctuary.
In April 2017, the ALDF requested the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service determine whether Tony’s owners and enclosure were in violation of the Animal Welfare Act. The ALDF later requested an expedited Freedom of Information Act request for records related to Tony’s medical inspection.
Failure to receive an expedited request “could reasonably be expected to pose an imminent threat to the life or physical safety of an individual,” according to FOIA regulations.
But those results returned Oct. 20, three days after Tony’s death and six months after ALDF requested for an expedited return.
The ALDF was denied an expedited processing request on the USDA’s grounds that “Tony the Tiger is not considered an ‘individual’” under the FOIA because “the term ‘individual’ in this matter only encompasses human beings.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” says ALDF senior staff attorney Tony Eliseuson, arguing that even a cursory definition of “individual” in a dictionary would encompass animals, among other things.
A U.S. District Court ruling came against the ALDF in May, and ALDF attorneys filed their appeal July 18.
The ALDF pointed to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition of individual as “a particular being or thing as distinguished from a class, species, or collection.” The court disagreed, arguing that it’s “ordinary meaning” in the context of a FOIA request is to mean “human,” and it would be up to Congress, not the courts, to redefine whether it can encompass nonhuman animals.
“What this case is about now is not just a fight for Tony and his records but for all the other captive wild animals who may be in a similar situation,” Eliseuson says, “who may have their life or well-being in jeopardy, and groups like ours or any citizens should be able to get access to those veterinary records and inspection records to make sure the appropriate steps are taken to prevent any bad outcomes.”
The results of the FOIA request revealed that Tony’s owner Michael Sandlin was made aware by Tony’s vet that “the end was near,” Eliseuson said. “We did not know that. If we had known that, we could’ve tried to take more active steps in the Louisiana state court case or informed Louisiana regulators the vet was not doing an appropriate job.”
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If the argument sticks in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the ALDF hopes it would empower people in other jurisdictions to push for expedited FOIA returns, capable of “nationwide ramifications that will help our organization and citizens,” Eliseuson said.
“It’s just a question of whether the 9th Circuit gets it right, and determines that the term ‘individual’ has a broad meaning that applies to non-human animals.”
Meanwhile, a state judge is set to rule whether Louisiana can keep its big cat ban in effect. In 2014, legislation signed by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal exempted Tony from the ban, but prevented Sandlin from having more big cats following Tony's death.