BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A measure that would allow a gas station owner to keep a tiger at his business is nearing final legislative passage after getting approval from a Louisiana House committee Wednesday.
The House Natural Resources Committee voted 10-6 to approve the proposal by Port Allen Sen. Rick Ward, a Republican who said he grew up seeing tigers at the gas station in Grosse Tete.
The bill would allow Michael Sandlin, owner of Tiger Truck Stop, to keep a 14-year-old Bengal tiger named Tony on site despite court rulings against him. He has previously lost a lawsuit and has another one pending that challenges the law prohibiting big cat ownership.
Louisiana passed a law in 2006 that bars people from owning big cats, but makes an exception for those who can "prove previous ownership," along with universities and zoos. The bill would amend the law to say that people who lawfully obtained a big cat and possessed it since 2006 are included in exemptions.
Animal rights groups say keeping Tony at a gas station threatens public safety and the tiger's well-being.
Representatives from the Animal Legal Defense Fund said Sandlin got several citations for failure to provide Tony with basic needs. They also argued that making an exception to the law would override the court system and lead to more challenges from big cat owners.
"I think it's fair to let the courts do their job," said Carter Dillard, director of litigation for the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
Sandlin, who described himself as a "tiger conservationist," said Tony is happy and moving him would endanger his life.
"My boy ... has obviously thrived," Sandlin said.
He warned that animal rights groups will not stop with Tony, but try to take Louisiana's other big cats, referencing the LSU tiger mascot that lives in a sprawling habitat on campus.
"They want Mike the Tiger, too," he said.
But opponents said they only want to uphold the law and make sure Tony does not die in a gas station parking lot.
Pat Craig, executive director of The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado who testified against the bill, said Tony is welcome at his sanctuary where he would live a long and sociable life.
"He's got the best option there is," he said.
Sandlin and his supporters said that Tony would likely die from the stress of moving in his old age.
Voting for the bill were Reps. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette; James Armes, D-Leesville; Charles "Bubba" Chaney, R-Rayville; Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge; Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette; Jerry "Truck" Gisclair, D-Larose; Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville; Eddie Lambert, R-Gonzales; Jack Montoucet, D-Crowley; and Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales.
Voting to oppose the proposal were Reps. Robert Billiot, D-Westwego; Pat Connick, R-Marrero; John Guinn, R-Jennings; Ted James, D-Baton Rouge; Sam Jones, D-Franklin; and Chris Leopold, R-Belle Chasse.
The bill, which won narrow Senate approval, now heads to the full House for debate.
Senate Bill 250 can be found at www.legis.la.gov