Last month, LSU announced Mike the Tiger, its live animal mascot, has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, leading to the 420-pound cat receiving unprecedented treatment at a facility for human patients. In response to the news, PETA sent a letter to the school on May 24, pushing for Mike VI to be LSU’s last-ever live animal mascot:
“[Captive tigers] live in perpetual states of confinement, discomfort, and stress and, at LSU games, are subjected to a constant barrage of disorienting lights and activity. They often become despondent and develop neurotic and self-destructive types of behavior, including pacing, bar-biting, and self-mutilation … I hope you agree that it’s time to recognize society’s growing distaste for animal exhibition and bring a new tradition to LSU of using only willing, costumed human mascots.”
Every school that has a live animal mascot also has a costumed version. So why use both? The answer seems to lie in what so many universities are grounded in: tradition. And despite animal rights groups’ objections to their very presence in college sports, animal mascots have again wandered into the spotlight recently, though mostly for dying and/or being replaced.
In December, Georgia’s Uga IX died, at age 11, one month after giving up his title. Bevo XIV, the University of Texas longhorn, died in October and the school’s alumni association recently announced that Bevo XV will make his public debut in the fall. The Navy, which always has two active goats to make game-day appearances for football, tested Bill the Goat XXXV and XXXVI last fall with a sort of season-long audition to see how they would do after Bill XXXIII and XXXIV retired.
The Navy continues with live animal mascots, as well as a costumed mascot, because, again, its tradition. A live goat made his debut in 1893 at the fourth game between Navy and Army. But beyond sticking around because that’s how things have been, what is life like for these animals?
At the Naval Academy, the goats are not fully domesticated, said director of media relations Jenny Erickson. “They might try to chew on your pants,” she said with a laugh.
Navy’s Angora goats live on an undisclosed farm, but when they’re not on the sideline, some live animal mascots live with their handlers, like South Carolina’s Big Sir Spur. Oklahoma’s Boomer and Sooner, a pair of Welsh ponies, live in a stable known only to a select few.
“We used to get emails about painting them certain colors or branding them,” Charlie Taylor, Oklahoma’s assistant Athletic Director of operations, told the OU Daily in 2014.
Then there’s the cost. Most universities won’t disclose the amount spent on boarding and care for their mascot, but the animals are taken to some of the top veterinary hospitals, like Texas A&M or Bolton, where many of the Preakness horses go.
Just search for an English bulldog on any pet-finder site and you’ll quickly see that one of the cons of the dog is the sky-high vet bills. Butler Blue III is an English bulldog.
And, of course, handling is another pricey issue. Most of the animals are a donation to the university, however at places like Texas A&M and Butler, a handler is with the mascot at all times.
Texas A&M’s collie, Reveille, is always accompanied by a member of the Corps of Cadets. In fact, when a Miss Rev dies, she is buried at the north entrance of Kyle field, facing the scoreboard so she can always see if the Aggies are beating their opponent.
Michael Kaltenmark, Butler Blue III’s handler, is technically the director of external relations, but he said if the university had the resources, he could spend more than 40 hours a week on their mascot program, which officially started in 2000. Kaltenmark took over in 2004 and has since created a formal mascot program – that includes expanding public relations and marketing, increasing new student recruitment and alumni relationships, fundraising and development. Kaltenmark said having a mascot you can pet or introduce your own dog to is “the next level.”
Blue III, known as Trip which is short for Triple, can be found on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, YouTube and Snapchat. He is also ready to hit the road at a moment’s notice, with a travel crate packed and ready. He did this spring, venturing to Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. He showed up on the doorsteps of accepted students to try to convince them to come to Indianapolis.
“It takes [the university] from being maybe a large, intimidating place of bricks and mortar to literally a small, fuzzy, warm inviting place, all because of one dog,” Kaltenmark said. “That’s pretty hard to do with a costumed mascot.”
What about the game-day experiences? The loud crowds, the cannons booming in the end zone at football games, things the Animal Legal Defense Fund points out as not found in an animal’s natural habitat. The ALDF is hoping universities will do away with tradition and go in the direction of the Ringling Brothers.
“This was not an easy decision for the Feld family to arrive at,” Steve Payne, the vice president of communications for Feld Entertainment, told NPR. “It’s been a long, heartfelt thought process, but … the family decided that removing the elephants from the circus units and bringing them to the Center for Elephant Conservation was in the best interest of the company and, most importantly, the elephants.”
Carney Anne Nasser, the senior counsel for Wildlife and Regulatory Affairs for the ALDF, said her organization sees a parallel in the employment of live animal mascots.
“A university’s sporting events is similar to a circus, that it can continue to dazzle and entertain without animal acts,” Nasser told The Post. “A sporting event at a university certainly does not rely on an animal mascot to fill seats on game day.”
Some fans would argue seeing their school’s mascot on the field is part of the game–day experience. Both Erickson and Kaltenmark said that’s why their animals are introduced to their environments – lots of people, random noises – at an early age, so they can adapt to it.
The animals also get plenty of food, water and treats on the sideline. Navy’s Bill XXXV and XXXVI are dressed up for game day.
“They stand next to each other on the sideline in front of the Brigade of Midshipmen,” Erickson said. “The cameras love the goats. They’re always camera ready.”
Kaltenmark’s 5-year-old son consistently refers to Trip the dog as his brother. Kaltenmark believes Trip feels the same.
“He thinks he’s a person,” Kaltenmark said. “Think about it: He rides in cars, flies in airplanes, goes to basketball games or big events. He still acts like a dog, but he expects to do all of those things. They don’t surprise him.
“He still gets excited about a car trip, but if I leave him at home, he hates it. He thinks he needs to be out doing stuff.”