Photos by the author
The Tiger Truck Stop is open 24 hours a day, but there’s only one full-time resident. His name is Tony. He’s a 14-year-old Bengal tiger, and he’s not going anywhere.
I drove out to Grosse Tete, Louisiana to check on Interstate 10’s most controversial endangered animal. Every day, hundreds of truckers and road-trippers stop by this small town outside Baton Rouge to visit Tony. They park their cars and walk over to the tiger pen, lining up along the outer fence to cluck and whistle. They buy petrol and stop at the Tiger Country Store for snacks and sodas. It’s been this way since 1987, when owner Mike Sandlin brought the tigers from his family’s failed Texas truck stops to open the business in Grosse Tete.
Without Tony, “Grosse Tete wouldn’t be Grosse Tete”, insisted Kendra Poor. She quit her job at the truck stop, but comes to visit every day. When she was a kid, her family brought her in to see tiger cubs playing behind the counter.
Rabid enthusiasm for the Louisiana State University Tigers football team is surely part of Tony’s staying power, but everyone I met at the truck stop told me they loved him as an individual. They felt the kind of loyalty that assumes the rest of the world would understand, if only they could see. “We’re more like family than co-workers,” explained cashier Chantelle Easterly. “Tony’s our brother.”
Last week, Governor Bobby Jindal signed a bill exempting Tony from the state’s exotic cat ban. It’s the end of a fight that’s dragged on for years, ever since the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries decided that a law allowing big cats at sanctuaries and research institutions was not supposed to include a tiger at a petrol station. A representative of the Animal Legal Defence Fund told the state legislature the new bill was “a one-man run-around”.
The bill passed anyway. When he learned about the governor’s signature, Mike Sandlin told me, “I said, ‘Thank you, Jesus.'”
Mike and his partner Scott have been together longer than the truck stop has been open. They don’t have any kids, but they’ve babied a lot of tigers. Mike listed names: Sampson, Delilah, Gloria, Sugar, Sassy, Shania, Shere-Khan. He loves Tony like a pet. He can’t bear to think of him in a wildlife sanctuary, “locked away and isolated and never sweet-talked to again”. During the week, Mike manages the truck stop and spends time with Tony. On Sunday, he’s a gospel singer. You can buy a CD of him singing “His Hand in Mine” and “Old Rugged Cross” at the truck stop for $12.98 (£7.60).
Mike doesn’t like to play up the issue of homophobia. He and his team blame any objections to Tony’s condition on animal rights extremism. As Mike sees it, animal rights are a one-way street to veganism and total animal freedom. He gave me a copy of his DVD, an 80-minute film called How Not! to Kill A Tiger. “The Best Family Documentary of the Last Ten Years!” reads the cover, under a close-up of Tony inside steel bars. “How would you fight The Law?”
The Tiger Truck Stop won this fight, but Mike has bigger goals. He told me (and the state legislature) that when he caught Tony humping a Christmas tree in the play yard last December, he realised his tiger needed a girlfriend. He wants to breed cubs again. The legal exemption only allows for Tony. Unsatisfied, Mike sued the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, arguing the state discriminated against him as an exotic-animal owner.
Tony’s home, fenced out in the space between the car park and the frontage road, isn’t all you’d hope. There’s a kiddie pool mounted in a miniature deck and a heavily chewed tire swing. Extra cinderblock dens, left over from the days when there were four or even five tigers here, occupy some of the 3,200 square feet. Even Mike conceded that it doesn’t compare well to the other local tiger residence: LSU’s $3 million (£1.8 million) live mascot habitat, just 20 minutes away down I-10. The LSU veterinary department told me pointedly they had no comment on Tony.
The best things the truck stop has going are the people and the food, not the big cat. When I stopped in at the Tiger Cafe, the trucker next to me was digging into a steaming heap of Louisiana diner fare: gumbo, fried catfish, smoked sausage, a side of red beans and rice and two orders of corn bread. James Lewis was at work, wearing three pieces of tiger memorabilia and dark eyeshadow. He cocked his head over his shoulder and winked a huge, dramatic wink. Lewis had just moved to Grosse Tete, which, he said, was more tolerant of gay people than he'd expected. When he’s not at Tiger, James does makeup at drag shows in Baton Rouge.
“I dunno what makes people like that,” said Farel Lasseigne after James walked away, “but whatever floats their boat.” Farel thought Mike’s fight to keep Tony was worth it. “The man loves his cat,” he explained, as if this were perfectly ordinary. Then he told me about the time he transported another of Mike’s tigers, a male named Rambo. Rambo wasn’t sedated for the trip, so he was jumping around in back as Farel hurtled down the highway. “He had that trailer shaking,” he recalled. “I won’t do that no more.”
Farel retired from Wildlife and Fisheries, but he was still wearing his department-issue khaki hunting shirt. He cooks at the Tiger Cafe two nights a week, the same kitchen where his late mother worked. His niece works at the convenience store. His brother-in-law patches tires. I asked him if things didn’t get awkward with former co-workers when the truck stop sued Wildlife and Fisheries. He shook his head. “It ain’t no issue.”
I was surprised to find everyone at the Tiger Truck Stop so friendly and open, given how long they’ve been under attack. They were defensive about keeping Tony, but they were also eager to welcome me to their side. Everyone seemed genuinely happy with the status quo. There’s no amount of good intentions that will make this the best place for a live tiger. But I can’t imagine a truck stop in Louisiana more queer-friendly than this one. Maybe that could be the new schtick.
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