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Livin’ Like Mike

Caring for our beloved LSU mascot

In a state where college football comes second to none, a mascot worthy of representing the purple and gold is a must—and Mike the Tiger has never disappointed. Since 1893, LSU has been dubbed the tigers and in 1936, a live tiger mascot was brought to campus. Mike I was purchased from the Little Rock Zoo after the university collected a quarter from each of its students, making him worth a whopping $750. Since then, many things have changed from the way our Mikes are selected to his participation in football games, as well as his habitat but most importantly, the way he is cared for.

From 1936-1976 the Athletic Department was responsible for Mike’s care and now that responsibility lies with the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine and its students. Dr. David Baker, attending veterinarian for LSU, and Ginger Guttner, Director of Public Relations for the Vet School and the face behind @mikethetiger_lsu Instagram, currently mentor students who are hand-selected to be caregivers for Mike.

The students are picked in pairs; they apply as a team, interview as a team, get hired as a team and work with Mike for two years. As strong as the connection is between the students and their work ethics, the bond they share with Mike is really an amazing thing to see. From the start of their program they are with Mike every day, twice a day, and really come to know him as more than just the school’s mascot.

The students currently caring for Mike VII are Nick and Tre, and both said the experience is like no other.

“Its been a big adjustment with school, but I think just learning how important a job this is, and how much Mike means to the public, its just really been an honor and kind of changes how you think about your role here at LSU in the vet school,” said Nick.

Mike VII arrived on campus in August of 2017 after the passing of Mike VI; Mike VI was the school’s mascot for the previous nine years. Changes were made to the enclosure and when it was time to select a new tiger, the task went to Dr. Baker. As attending veterinarian, he knows exactly what to look for in the school’s furry friend.

“The first time he (Dr. Baker) saw them in the sanctuaries where we found them, both tigers walked up to the fence when he went up to the fence. And that’s what he was kind of looking for because tigers are very solitary and don’t live in packs or prides like other animals. The fact that they were interested in people was something he was looking for in terms of personality,” said Guttner. She has worked alongside Dr. Baker since 2004 and with the last two tigers, making Mike VII her third.

Mike VII was a year younger than when Mike VI first arrived on campus, so the differences between the two were quite apparent on our new Mike’s first day at LSU. A bouncy and energetic ball of fur, Guttner says although Mike VI was sweet, Mike VII has definitely been more playful. You can usually find him climbing his rocks or swimming in his pool if he’s not sunbathing or taking a catnap, and if you hear him make a low growling sound Guttner says that’s a “good noise.”

“He’ll play hide and go seek with me outside along the fence line and sit behind his little stone,” said Tre.

“He’s always very playful with his oxtails. It’s funny, if we forget to thaw them far enough in advance they’re kind of just like hockey pucks across the ground. So he bats them around, pounces on them. He’ll dip them in his water and then like bread them in his shavings and go back and forth,” said Nick.

The day to day care for Mike doesn’t involve much more than what you would do for your pet at home, just on a much larger scale. Every morning the caregivers check out Mike to make sure he’s good to go and look for any changes in his health or attitude that would show signs of sickness or distress.

“Its funny how much he’s like a house cat, he’ll greet you early in the morning. He’s a little more needy for attention,” said Tre.

They then secure Mike in his bedroom and venture out into the enclosure in search anything not in tact that could pose as a potential danger and also clean the grounds. When the enclosure is safe and clean, Mike is then released; typically before, but no later than 8 a.m.

Once a week, before Mike is released into the enclosure, he is weighed to check the pattern of his growth. Since arriving at LSU he has gained a whopping 249 lbs.! He is currently 428 lbs. and growing every single day.

After he is released, Mike spends his day in the enclosure where you can see him swimming, lounging or climbing on his rocks, and most likely sleeping. Around 8 p.m. Mike is put back in his night room where the caregivers do spot training with him. This helps the students get a full body visual exam and Mike gets a meatball every time he responds. Then, it’s dinner time.

His dinner consists of between 10-15 lbs. of ground meat that is given to zoo carnivores all over the country. Its mainly horse meat, with ground up fish, beef, and other vitamins and minerals that compliment his dietary needs.

This is the end of Mike’s day, and typically when Nick and Tre are finished with their duties, but when it comes to caring for Mike, they go the extra mile.

“I figure once classes get started this semester I’ll probably sit in there and read or study just to hang out with him,” said Tre. Guttner said one of his past caregivers would do yoga with Mike while he went to sleep.

From the way Mike recognizes his caregivers from across the enclosure, to the way he presses himself against his fence for them to give him some love, it’s very apparent Mike is not shy and loves being around his fans. This is why the decision was made for him to no longer go out on the field on game days.

“Standard of care for large exotic animals has changed throughout the years,” Guttner said things that were acceptable when the university bought their first tiger would not be acceptable today. “So when Mike VI passed away we really thought about it and LSU decided that it would be better to have him outside because on the days that we tried to load him, people didn’t get to see him unless he got in the trailer. We never made him go, but it just seemed better to let him out early in the morning on game day and everyone can see him.”

On days like game day or graduations, when a lot of people are on campus with loud music and plenty of commotion happening around, Mike still does not retreat to his night house, that is always kept open, and seems to enjoy the extra company.

Mike VII and his personality really bring a special quality to not only LSU football, but the whole university. Some have expressed their distaste towards the university keeping a live mascot on campus, but it’s not all just for show.

“It raises awareness about tigers in the wild which is really important. Its also just been a huge tradition of what we do since 1936, so its just kind of our thing. There are only 2 live tiger mascots in the country and only one lives on campus,” said Guttner.

In an effort to provide the LSU community with information on the conservation of tigers, the university teamed up with Auburn, Clemson, and Missouri in July of 2017, to form the U.S. Tiger University Consortium as a part of the Global Tiger Forum hosted through the World Bank’s Global Tiger Initiative. The universities will put their focuses towards applying technology to monitor populations along with creating conservation leaders through academic scholarships and assistantships.

The love that is shown to Mike by the fans and his caregivers shows just how much he means to the university. And from the way he plays and loves back, he bleeds purple and gold just like the rest of us. To learn more about Mike VII and ways that you can be apart of the change LSU is creating, visit mikethetiger.com.

Photos by Mandy Samson

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