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Some animal rights activists say keeping a live mascot is outdated and cruel and want the tradition banned altogether.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."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
College football is underway. Louisiana State University was scheduled to play its first game of the season in Houston against Brigham Young. The game's been moved to New Orleans because of hurricane-turned-tropical-storm Harvey.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The LSU Tigers a powerhouse in college football, have a new mascot this year. Well, not really new new. Since the 1930s, LSU has kept a live tiger mascot on campus. The tiger is always named Mike. And last October, Mike VI died of cancer. So the school has been looking for a new one. But not just any Tiger can be a Mike.
DAVID BAKER: We were looking for specific physical characteristics. We were looking for one that had certain behavioral characteristics - a very confident, engaging, interactive animal. We didn't want a tiger that was going to be hiding in the back of the enclosure when people were trying to see him.
MARTIN: LSU's veterinarian, David Baker, has cared for Mike V and VI. Now he's in charge of Mike VII, an 11-month-old Siberian-Bengal mix donated by a tiger sanctuary in Florida.
KELLY: OK. The new Mike arrived on campus in Baton Rouge last month to much fanfare. He's living in a newly renovated 15,000-square-foot enclosure which is attached to the football stadium.
BAKER: His outdoor habitat includes a waterfall, a stream, a pool downfall, which is logs that he can pull his claws on.
MARTIN: Now, some animal rights activists say keeping a live mascot is outdated and cruel. But Brittany Peet with the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals says it's OK for Mike to stay on the campus - with conditions.
BRITTANY PEET: Wild animals belong in the wild. But tigers who are in captivity now can't be released into the wild. And so it's up to facilities like LSU to ensure that they're providing the best care for animals in their possession. And the best care equals accreditation.
KELLY: The university says it is moving towards becoming an accredited tiger sanctuary. And here's one step in that direction - Mike will no longer be driven out onto the field in a cage to rally the crowds before home games.
MARTIN: Instead, he'll get to stay in his habitat, probably sleeping some 20 hours a day because - let's be honest - Mike is probably not that into football.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EYE OF THE TIGER")
SURVIVOR: (Singing) It's the eye of the tiger. It's the thrill of the fight. Rising up to the challenge of our rival. And the last... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.