A gr-r-r-reat cat fight is brewing at a truck stop in Louisiana, where animal rights advocates are fighting to have Tony, a Siberian-Bengal tiger, seized from his owner and taken to a wildlife preserve.
So far, this battle has seen death threats against activists, charges of animal abuse against the tiger's owner, dueling Web sites and near run-ins with the law. It's so downright dirty that the 800-pound jungle cat at the center of the controversy looks like the tamest personality involved.
• Click here for photos of Tony the Tiger.
On Tuesday, the Iberville Parish Council will meet to decide whether Tony's owner, Michael Sandlin, who has owned Tony since he was a cub, has been violating a local ordinance by publicly displaying the tiger at his Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete, La.
The ordinance blocks the state Wildlife and Fishery Department from granting Sandlin a permit to own Tony.
Sandlin's attorney will ask the council to make an exception for him and override the ordinance. But animal rights activists also will be at the council meeting to push their "Free Tony" campaign and argue that the local law should be upheld.
If past council meetings are any indicator, both sides will be baring their teeth and showing their claws. At their last meeting, in January, police had to be summoned to keep both sides from coming to blows.
As they await the meeting, the two sides are waging a public opinion war, mostly through their Web sites — freetony.com on one side and savetony.com on the other. They are urging local citizens to attend the parish council meeting, contact members of the council and even write to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
With a large crowd expected to show up on Tuesday, officials are bracing for the worst.
There has been bad blood for years between the animal rights advocates and Sandlin. Activist Sky Williamson first launched a campaign against Sandlin's truck stop in 2005, when she saw an advertisement for "Live Tigers" off Interstate 10. She recalls driving to the truck stop and finding Tony in a concrete cage off of the parking lot.
"I could not believe what I was seeing," she said. "It's animal cruelty on display.... This is not an acceptable situation."
Williamson, who says she has received death threats since taking up Tony's cause, described what she called an inhumane living situation. "Tony's in a cage, continuously inhaling diesel fumes, sloshing around in his own waste. ... It's sickening."
But Sandlin is not rolling over. He cited the 21-year history of the Tiger Truck Stop and said, "We've never had any incidents, no escapes, no injuries" — either to visitors or to the animals. He says it is the animal rights advocates who are guilty of animal cruelty, claiming he has found them crowding Tony's cage and flashing lights in his face in an attempt to snap a photo of the tiger in distress.
Sandlin says he is fighting overzealous activists who are spreading what he calls "propaganda" and infringing on his individual liberties.
"Yes, there need to be laws that protect the animal and the public," he said. "We are not against that; what we are against are legislators who cave in to these animal rights activists and take the rights away from individuals."
Sandlin's opponents say that the public is turning against him. Williamson has teamed up with a nonprofit group called Big Cat Rescue, and together they've made it their mission to relocate Tony, who they insist is being exploited.
"If you love something," Williamson said, "you take care of it. Michael Sandlin should have a better understanding of what's needed and what means quality of life.
"He doesn't care. Tony's a piece of property."
But Sandlin insists that Tony is much more than just a boon to business; he's a member of the family.
"He's a pet," Sandlin says. "And at the truck stop, Tony's with the only family he has ever known."
Sandlin has displayed five tigers since the Tiger Truck Stop opened in 1988 — "Our tigers before Tony, and now Tony, are what have made this truck stop famous," he said — and Tony, born in 2000, is the last one left. Sandlin was forced to turn over two other tigers in 2003.
And if activists have their way, the same will happen for Tony. Carole Baskin, CEO of the Big Cat Rescue wildlife preserve in Tampa, Fla., has extended repeated offers to Sandlin over the years to move Tony to her facility.
"Our care is absolutely the best, we provide the best food, we have the best employees, and we're an accredited preserve," Baskin says.
Williamson insists that the sprawling sanctuary, home to more than 100 big cats, would be better suited for Tony. "It would be the life of peace that Tony deserves."
Sandlin countered by saying the preserve was infested with fleas. "Hell will freeze over before Tony goes there," he says.
Whatever the council decides on Tuesday, both sides vow to continue fighting. This case may end up having nine lives.