Famous Tiger Passes Away After 17 Years Stuck At Truck Stop
“We are devastated ... he lived and died caged at a truck stop that could never provide the life he deserved."
For 17 years, Tony the tiger sat on the concrete floor outside a busy truck stop in Grosse Tete, Louisiana, while people around the world fought to save him.
On Monday, his story came to a sad end. Tony was euthanized by truck stop owner Michael Sandlin due to kidney failure and declining health, according to Louisiana outlet The Advocate.
“We are devastated that despite our best efforts, he lived and died caged at a truck stop that could never provide the life he deserved,” the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), which spent more than seven years trying to free Tony, said in a statement.
For nearly two decades, Tony’s story was a warning about what could happen to large cats and other exotic animals in states with too-loose exotic animal regulations. His cage was a barren wall of bars around a concrete floor, just yards away from constant highway traffic.
He was an attraction for truckers and visitors who would often gather around his cage — some visitors would report seeing people taunt or tease the elderly cat.
"It is a truck stop where it's blacktop filled with diesel fumes and crowds of people that taunt Tony," Carter Dillard, senior policy advisor (then director of litigation) for ALDF, told The Dodo in 2015. "It's nothing like the environment he was born to inhabit. It's torturous given his nature."
Videos show the tiger pacing back and forth in his cage almost compulsively, a common sign of captive stress and stereotypic behavior in large cats.
Sandlin rebutted activists by noting that Tony had access to grass and that his cage was above the federal minimum. "To have these idiots, these nuts that think they know more about tigers than I do — I can't stand it," he told New Orleans' Times-Picayune in 2014.
Sandlin, who also owns the truck stop, had purchased Tony in 2001 as a 6-month-old cub — though he already had a growing collection of tigers and a questionable history breeding and keeping animals.
In 1989 he had raffled off an 11-month-old tiger cub, noting the winner could do whatever they wanted with her: send her to a zoo, gift her to a friend. In 1997 Sandlin had sold a pair of tiger cubs for $2,500 to a couple on a camping trip — one of the cubs was later diagnosed with fluid collection in her joints from living on concrete. Sandlin also declawed several of his cubs — a serious procedure that can lead to lifelong health issues — with one of them dying following the surgery.
Sandlin had also racked up a long history of Animal Welfare Act violations, including USDA citations for failure to provide shelter, lack of clean water, and failure to provide veterinary care.
While organizations like ALDF and Florida’s Big Cat Rescue received increasingly frequent complaints from members of the public who were concerned about Tony, Sandlin butted heads with them, posting jokes about how activists would “taste like chicken” to Tony.
When it became clear that keeping Tony would be illegal under Louisiana’s welfare laws, Sandlin cozied up to local legislators. In 2014, then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed a law specifically exempting Sandlin from the restrictions on wild animal ownership that applied to everyone else in the state.
"He went to the legislature and got sort of what we call a law ... just for him ... unconstitutionally passed," Dillard explained at the time. "It's clearly illegal."
For the next two years, ALDF and Sandlin continued to wage war in the courts. Just this past July, ALDF filed a lawsuit against the USDA for, among other things, refusing to expedite a FOIA records request on behalf of Tony. With awareness of Tony’s plight growing, ALDF and others were optimistic public opinion would shift far enough to make Tony’s eventual release inevitable.
But throughout it all, they recognized it was a race against time to free the aging tiger.
"Michael Sandlin seems to have dug his heels in, not because he doesn't know what he's doing to this majestic animal is wrong, but more because he doesn't want to be told what to do," Dr. Jennifer Conrad, a veterinarian and big cat specialist, told The Dodo presciently back in 2015. "It is sad to say that the 15-year-old tiger might not live long enough to see his rescue at this rate."