It’s a tough pill to swallow for thousands in the LSU community: Mike VI, the impressive, 420-pound Bengali-Siberian tiger who lives next to the university’s Tiger Stadium, has terminal cancer and only a couple of years at most to live.
For many die-hard fans and alumni, he’s the living embodiment of the football team’s spirit. He’s a must-see stop for any visitor in the capital region. But as his name denotes, Mike VI is only the most recent iteration of a long line of tigers to assume the treasured role since 1936.
So what about Mike VII? Will LSU continue the tradition of housing a live wild animal on campus? Where would the next tiger come from?
The answers are a little hairy.
A variety of experts representing zoos, exotic animal sanctuaries and animal welfare organizations say LSU could run into challenges sourcing its next live tiger without inadvertently supporting a controversial industry — the for-profit breeding and trading of wild animals in North America. Critics of that brand of breeding say it contributes to the world of dispirited roadside zoos and overcrowded private menageries that often don’t offer proper care for exotic wildlife.
“No reputable zoo and no reputable sanctuary is going to give a tiger to LSU,” said Debra Leahy, an expert in captive wildlife protection with the Humane Society of the United States. “The only source could be a shady pseudo-sanctuary or a roadside zoo, but by perpetuating the live mascot, they are participating in exotic animal trade.”
In past years, LSU has gotten its tigers from zoos or from two animal sanctuaries, both of which have since been shut down by the federal government for failing to provide proper care.
Zoo policies on animal donations have evolved over several decades and now largely bar tiger exchanges that aren’t grounded in a strictly guided species survival plan. And true animal sanctuaries, ones that are accredited, wouldn’t give a tiger to LSU because it’s antithetical to their mission, animal welfare groups say.
David Baker, LSU’s veterinarian for Mike, said he would not comment on where a future tiger could come from.
“LSU will always do the right thing,” Baker said. “But I’m not going to talk about the next tiger.”
Despite his name, Mike VI is actually LSU’s seventh live tiger. Mike II was two separate tigers, but the first one died too soon for the school’s comfort, so university officials surreptitiously replaced him with a new big cat while insisting it was the same one. Baker, who wrote a book on the origins of Mike, confirmed the 1950s LSU folklore.
Both the current mascot and his predecessor Mike V came to LSU from places that called themselves sanctuaries. But both of those businesses have since been shut down for a long list of chronic violations related to the health of the animals and the safety of the public.
Neither location was ever accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, a certifying organization for sanctuaries.
Kellie Heckman, the federation’s executive director, said no organization that would donate a live tiger to a university for display should legitimately call itself a sanctuary.
“We don’t buy cats. We don’t sell cats. We don’t breed cats. You can’t touch the cats, and we don’t take them off-site to events,” Heckman said. “We are the final stop. We are the forever home.”
In 2007, Mike VI came from the Great Cats of Indiana, an organization LSU refers to as a nonprofit animal sanctuary and rescue organization for big cats.
Baker himself went to Indiana to select Mike from two litters of cubs born at the facility after a male tiger knocked down a fence and bred with two female tigers. Baker said his stipulation for selecting the mascot was that it wasn’t “purposefully bred.”
While he was there, he said it was clear the animals were receiving excellent care.
Baker said he was unconcerned by reports of the facility shutting down, noting that his understanding was that it was cited for improper medical care for animals after a veterinarian there unexpectedly moved away and left the staff short-handed.
“They had the best looking tigers I’d ever seen,” he said. “I don’t really care what was on paper; what I saw was very positive.”
The Indiana facility was shut down in 2014, after being stripped of its license by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and having all its animals seized by the state’s Department of Natural Resources. . State regulators in 2012 had seized four tigers and three other big cats after complaints of cats malnourished and inspections that found that their cages did not meet state regulations. But its list of violations cited by the USDA date back more than a decade. In 2010, two tigers escaped the facility, and the owner had to shoot them, killing one and injuring the other. Animals also were seized from the facility in 2011.
Mike V, who came to LSU in 1990, was donated by the Animal House Zoological Park in Moulton, Ala. The USDA repeatedly cited the park for not having safe enclosures, not providing stimulating activities or environments for animals for their physical and social well-being, insufficient medical care and staffing, and not cleaning up the animal feces on a daily basis.
“These places come and go,” Baker said. “The fact that place closed eventually, I couldn’t care less. Theaters close too, but that doesn’t mean they don’t show good movies.”
In the United States, experts estimate there are more than 5,000 privately owned tigers that don’t live in zoos.
The industry revolves largely around the demand for tiger cubs, which are bred for businesses to attract tourists. Businesses across the country will offer customers the chance to hold, pet and take pictures with tiger cubs for a fee.
At Dade City’s Wild Things Zoo Tours in Florida, people can pay to swim in a chlorinated pool with a baby tiger. At Ohio’s Massillon Washington High School, the mascot is a live tiger cub, which means every year since 1970, to ensure the perpetual youth of the cat, the cub is replaced.
As soon as the tigers get bigger, they become less commercially valuable, more expensive to care for and increasingly dangerous.
“Places that breed cubs for a lifetime of being in a cage, it’s just not appropriate and it’s cruel,” said Heckman, the director of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries .
Tigers cost about $10,000 per year in food and medical care, said Susan Bass, a spokeswoman for Big Cat Rescue in Florida, a federation accredited sanctuary.
She said overwhelmed private owners will often defang, declaw or euthanize adult tigers.
Thousands of tigers become exotic pets in people’s backyards, and many end up in roadside exhibits or facilities that claim to be an animal sanctuary but have less altruistic intentions for the animals, animal welfare experts say. Some of the unaccredited sanctuaries are well-intended and exist to provide care for the overpopulation of exotic animals, but they still lack adequate space and resources, said Carson Barylak, campaigns officer with the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
“Some of these places inaccurately market themselves as sanctuaries because it gives people a feel-good sense when they go there,” Barylak said.
Barylak said legitimate rescue organizations would not give a university a tiger for exhibition, though she added that she does believe LSU provides optimal care for its own tiger.
While Mike the Tiger lives in an upscale captive enclosure with excellent medical attention and doting caretakers, the acquisition of a tiger still helps support an industry that mistreats animals, the Humane Society’s Leahy says, echoing the sentiments of other animal welfare experts.
“To empty a cage just so it can be filled up again isn’t solving the problem,” Leahy said. “You wouldn’t go buy a dog from a puppy mill and say you’re rescuing a dog; it’s flawed logic. They’re really part of the problem and not part of the solution.”
The other place for tigers in North America is a zoo. But there’s little overlap these days between rescue tiger populations, associated with sanctuaries, and tigers from reputable zoos.
Before the 1990s, LSU either bought or was donated tigers from zoos. The first came from the Little Rock Zoo in 1936, with later ones acquired from the New Orleans Audubon Zoo, the Seattle Zoo and Busch Gardens.
But all of those transactions happened before 1985, when the Association of Zoos and Aquariums started its own accreditation process. Today, all of those zoos are accredited by the association, which says the designation ensures the zoo is adhering to strict ethical and educational principals.
Rob Vernon, a spokesman for the association, said it’s “probably unlikely” that an accredited zoo would transfer an animal today to an entity without that designation.
LSU cannot receive the accreditation because it would be categorized as a single-animal exhibit. Vernon also referred to the association’s animal transfer policy, under which endangered animals like tigers are relocated based on a carefully monitored breeding plan based on promoting the species.
Mike VI likely would not be considered for mating by zoos because he is a cross of two sub-species — Bengal and Siberian — that don’t occur naturally in the wild.
Zoo officials from New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Little Rock all said they would transfer tigers only in accordance with that species’ survival plan.
But Busch Gardens — a Florida theme park that includes animal exhibits — would base decisions on the “quality of care, either through the standards establish through an accreditation process or through our own evaluation,” said its spokeswoman Karen Varga-Sinka.
For LSU’s part, university officials have been unwilling to discuss plans about a new tiger, despite Mike VI’s apparently terminal condition.
But Jason Droddy, LSU vice president of policy and external affairs, said it’s likely the school would consider its options to keep the tradition alive..
“Of course we care about the ethical treatment of tigers, and all the variables you bring up here are all good variables to consider,” Droddy said. “But right now, our only concentration is on the health and welfare of Mike VI.”