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Lawsuit filed over constitutionality of new law aimed at protecting truck stop tiger owner

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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — A former state lawmaker and a national animal rights group filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging a newly passed law that lets a Grosse Tete gas station owner keep a tiger on site, despite previous court decisions against him.

The lawsuit, filed in Baton Rouge district court, claims lawmakers and the governor violated the Louisiana Constitution, which bans special laws granting exclusive privileges to a single person.

The new law exempts Michael Sandlin, owner of Tiger Truck Stop and a 14-year-old, 550-pound Bengal tiger named Tony, from state restrictions on owning exotic cats.

Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the bill into law last week, after lawmakers gave it final passage in May.

The lawsuit says Sandlin "has repeatedly sought preferential treatment while for years openly violating a state law intended to protect public safety, animal welfare and conservation efforts."

The lawsuit was filed by former lawmaker Warren Triche, along with Louisiana residents John Kelleher and Juliette Dauterive. Animal Legal Defense Fund is providing the attorneys in the case.

Triche sponsored a law passed in 2006 that prohibits big cat ownership in Louisiana, with exceptions for universities, zoos and scientific organizations. The newly passed law, sponsored by Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, allows people who lawfully obtained a big cat and continuously possessed it since August 2006 to also be exempted.

During debate, Ward said such an exemption would only apply to Sandlin.

"The Constitution's prohibition on special laws is a bulwark against corruption and political favoritism," the lawsuit says.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, Laura Gerdes Colligan, said the office hadn't yet received a copy of the lawsuit and couldn't comment.

Ward said he expected the lawsuit would be filed since the animal rights organization had fought passage of the bill.

"I'm pretty confident of the legality of it," he said. "I think it's got a very good chance to be considered constitutional."

The lawsuit claims the exemption for Sandlin also is unconstitutional because it seeks to retroactively clarify a law on which the courts already have ruled; Sandlin lost a previous legal battle to keep the tiger under the initial 2006 law.

Named as defendants are the state, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Sandlin and his Tiger Truck Stop.

Supporters of the new law signed by Jindal say Tony the tiger lives comfortably and safely. Sandlin told lawmakers that moving the tiger would endanger his life.

Animal rights groups say keeping Tony at a gas station threatens public safety and the tiger's well-being.

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