There's a new big man on campus at Louisiana State University — and he's a cat.
It's Mike the Tiger, the LSU Tigers' live mascot.
The 11-month-old Siberian-Bengal mix officially replaced Mike VI late last month — just in time for the start of school and football season. LSU plays its first game against Brigham Young University on Saturday.
The previous Mike passed away from cancer last October. Since LSU has kept a live tiger on campus since 1934, the search for the new Mike began almost immediately, says David Baker, the mascot's primary veterinarian. Baker, who has overseen the care of Mike V, VI and now VII, says he received dozens of notices from the public, the tiger sanctuary community as well as the state and federal government about tigers that might be a good fit to be the next Mike.
But there are restrictions: LSU does not purchase its tigers — that practice ended in the 1950s — and does not encourage tiger breeding for profit.
"We really wanted to provide a home sanctuary for a tiger in need of a home," says Baker.
Ultimately, LSU went with a tiger originally named Harvey, donated by the Wild at Heart Wildlife Center in Okeechobee, Fla. Harvey was originally shown to Baker and the LSU staff that visited the wildlife center as an aside, but Baker says the cub caught his eye. Not just any tiger can be the next Mike. They look for a confident and interactive animal, he says.
"We didn't want an animal that was hiding in the back of the enclosure when people were trying to see him," Baker says.
Mike lives in a newly-renovated, 15,000 square-foot enclosure attached to Death Valley, the LSU football stadium. The enclosure's amenities include a waterfall, a stream, a pool, logs for Mike to sink his claws into and even a night house for him to escape the elements.
Some animal rights activists say keeping a live mascot is outdated and cruel and want the tradition banned altogether. Others have a more moderate opposition.
Brittany Peet, director for the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals' Captive Animals Law Enforcement, says even though the notion of having live animal mascots is antiquated, LSU does seem to be listening to animal rights advocates.
For example, she says the university's first major renovation of the enclosure back in 2005 included adding a heated rock and a pool.
"This is a habitat that far exceeds the type of habitat that LSU previous provided for Mike," she says. Now PETA is calling on LSU to pursue accreditation through the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuary, a status that Peet says would prevent any breeding of the big cats and sets extremely high standards for animal care.
"PETA's position is that wild animals belong in the wild, but tigers who are in captivity now can't be released into the wild," she says. "And so it's up to the facilities at LSU to ensure that they are providing the best care for the animals in their possession and the best care equals accreditation."
For LSU's part, they have publicly stated that they will pursue the accreditation.
In keeping with the progressive stance, the university says Mike is no longer driven out onto the field in a cage during home football games. Baker says this change will bring them more in line with the goals of becoming a tiger sanctuary program.
Mike is a symbol for LSU students, faculty, staff and alumni, Baker says, because he's a reminder of everything good about LSU.
"Mike also represents an endangered species of tiger," Baker says, "and by his very presence on campus, raises awareness in people's minds about animal endangerment and even broader conservation issues."