Jonathan Bachman/AP Images

For the past two generations, LSU has been obtaining successive iterations of their live tiger mascot, Mike the Tiger, from shoddy, abusive, and neglectful backyard zoos.

Mike the Tiger VI, LSU’s live mascot, died Oct. 11 after a five-month battle with cancer. Following the news of his death, he was fondly remembered by thousands on social media and in local newspapers. His death was treated with a weighty sadness; it was also used as an opportunity to remind the public of the cruelty inherent in maintaining a live, exotic mascot.

Those who have visited Baton Rouge and hold the tradition and the animal close to their heart offered sentiments about how pristine his enclosure was; how his medical care was top-notch; and how Mike VI’s fans and caretakers had saved him from a worse fate.

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Those thoughts aren’t wrong, exactly, but express a certain ignorance. Mike VI, like previous Mikes, was the product of a two-tiered zoo system that exists in part because of the willingness of institutions like LSU to source exotic animals from the bottom tier.

Mike VI’s previous home was stripped of its exotic animal licenses by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the harsh mistreatment of its animals, according to government records and multiple news reports. Despite his development of cancer, he was indeed in a better environment at LSU than he would have been at a place that, according to government findings, kept multiple tigers in metal sheds and cages barely large enough for one animal, allowing shit to pile up around display items. This just means, though, that while he lived a good life, he did so—because of LSU—at the expense of the tigers and other exotic animals he left behind.

History of Mike

The first step to understanding the ills of the current Mike-retrieval process is understanding the role of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

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The AZA is a nonprofit founded in 1924 that, per the front page of its website, is “dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science, and recreation.” Over the past 30 years, it has played the role of an accreditor; fewer than 10 percent of the nation’s 2,800 animal exhibits with a license from the USDA meet the AZA’s standards, according to the association’s website. (The AZA declined to comment.)

Those who want or need merely to get past the USDA’s purview have a looser set of guidelines by which they have to abide, freeing them from the stress of AZA inspections, which take place at member institutions every five years. This is why numerous backyard exhibits found across the nation can display exotic animals—tigers, bears, cheetahs, lions, lemurs, monkeys, etc.—without following a strict enforcement regime while still making a decent amount of money. They can corner rural markets for those hoping to see exotic animals while not necessarily meeting the standards of the AZA.

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Prior to 1985, Mikes I-IV were all retrieved from zoos—Little Rock Zoo, Audubon Zoo, Seattle Zoo, and Busch Gardens, to be specific. (All four zoos are now members of the AZA.) After Mike IV, who came to Baton Rouge in 1976, closed his run in 1990, though, LSU’s search for a Mike V took a different approach. Several zoo spokespeople we consulted told us that their understanding of AZA standards would prevent them from providing LSU a cub; it’s perhaps understandable, then, that according to the school’s website tiger bios, the university instead took to roadside zoos in search of its latest prop. Both Animal House in 2006—the former home of Mike V—and Great Cats Indiana in 2010—the former home of Mike VI—were privately-owned and operated facilities stripped of their exotic animal licenses and, according to USDA reports, de-licensed due to federal violations including, but not limited to, malnourishing their animals, not providing proper medical care, and allowing the animals to live surrounded by their own fecal matter. Mike V had been gone from Animal House for nearly two decades by the time it closed; according to press releases and the USDA report, which was released three years after LSU visited the facility, Mike VI was present at the facility while said treatment occurred.

Upon the death of Mike V, LSU chancellor Sean O’Keefe rejected PETA’s request that the school discontinue the practice of obtaining mascots from shady second-tier zoos, boasting in a public response that all but one (really two because Mike II was actually two separate tigers) of the previous mascots lived full lives compared to their fate in the wild.

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As it turns out, though, tiger statistics, like sports statistics, are flexible. The average length of service before death for the seven Mikes has been 11.5 years, according to LSU’s tiger bios. O’Keefe claimed that the lifespan of a tiger is 8-10 year in the wild and 14-18 in captivity, but the numbers vary depending on the source: Big Cat Rescue writes that most tigers live 10-12 years in zoos, up to 15 in the wild, and up to 26 in sanctuaries; National Geographic reports 10 years in the wild and 20 in captivity; Defenders of Wildlife says 10-15 in the wild.

When The Baton Rouge Advocate asked Dr. David Baker, the veterinarian in charge of Mike VI, about the inhumane conditions of the places LSU had adopted Mike V and Mike VI from, he defended the facilities and downplayed the seriousness of the school’s decision to obtain their cats from such places. Keep these quotes in mind moving forward.

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“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.”

[....]

“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.”

LSU’s media relations director Ernie Ballard sent us the following statement when we reached out directly to Baker, Ballard, and athletic director Joe Alleva:

LSU is searching for a young tiger, currently living in a rescue facility, that could be donated to LSU. LSU will not engage in breeding tigers to obtain a mascot, nor will LSU purchase a tiger. Instead, LSU is seeking to adopt a tiger that is already living in captivity in the U.S. and give it a better home. LSU’s tiger habitat is 15,000 square feet, includes grass, trees and a pool, and is on par with tiger habitats at the nation’s top zoos. LSU’s mascot receives top-notch care through LSU’s School of Veterinary Medicine, and the mascot only attends football games when he chooses to enter his mobile trailer. Mike VI received an estimated 100,000 visitors each year at his habitat, and through those visits, LSU aims to inspire respect for tigers and awareness of their plight in the wild.

To be clear here: LSU does not adopt Mikes as a cat-saving effort; it adopts tigers because it wants tigers as an attraction for its dated football tradition. According to interviews with zoo and sanctuary officials, the university will likely never receive another tiger from a proper zoo or accredited sanctuary, because providing a tiger to a place that houses the big cat directly next and sometimes inside a traffic-heavy, noisy football stadium would be a violation of the Species Survival Plan. It wants these animals, nonetheless.

Animal House—Home of Mike V

The Animal House, founded and run by Carolyn Atchison, was the former home of Mike V, who was picked up from the private estate in 1989, according to his LSU bio. At the time, Animal House was not accredited by the AZA, though it would briefly earn the status in the early 1990s before having its membership revoked in 1996 after Atchison improperly obtained a pair of monkeys, according to a 1999 San Jose Mercury Sun article. Atchison spent decades compiling dozens of exotic animals on her property, which was located in Moulton, Ala. Atchison did not reply to request for comment.

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According the USDA report, Atchison’s care for the animals dropped significantly or was noticed by the mid-2000s, leading to the department issuing her a mere $3,500 fine and permanently banning her from obtaining an Animal Welfare Act license to buy, sell, or trade exotics in 2006; its animals were not rescued until 2013.

You can read the consent decision and order against Animal House at the bottom of this post. Below are several of the findings against the former home of the since-deceased Mike V tiger—it should be noted that these violations were only found more than 10 years after Mike V resided at the Animal House.

From an operational standpoint, the owners of Animal House failed to meet federal regulations in the following ways:

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  • Animal House kept no medical records of its animals.
  • Animal House improperly handled and euthanized its animals.
  • Animal House did not provide the majority of its animals with the legally mandated cage space, nor did it maintain any facilities for the animals to be moved to for cage cleaning.
  • Animal House did not remove fecal matter from the cages daily, as is required, and instead allowed the animal excreta to build up, specifically in its brown lemur enclosure.
  • Animal House kept a dog and kitten in is primate building.

For at least three months, Animal House did not employ a veterinarian to care for its animals, according to the USDA; when confronted by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Atchison “provided APHIS inspectors with a false document, dated August 26, 2004, representing that she had employed an attending veterinarian.” Animal House, according to those records, did not seek any professional care for following cases of animal suffering:

  • A male tiger with “a necrotic, ulcerative growth approximately the size of a grapefruit, encircling his tail near the base of the tail, with a three-to-four inch major necrotic center, as well as smaller abrasions and fistulas.”
  • A male tiger with “a half-dollar size abrasion on the right side of its back, (2) a hydroma on its right elbow, (3) a grey growth on its left foreleg, and (4) a grey growth on its felt rear lateral foot.”
  • A llama with “overgrown rear hooves which caused the animal’s digits to deviate medially, caused the llama to walk abnormally, and caused the llama to experience discomfort.”
  • For a minimum of 96 days, Animal House did not vaccinate or deworm its bears, felids, primates, and a capybara, test primates for tuberculosis or provide its foxes and wolves with heartworm medicine.

While what is described above will draw out the obvious response—“Oh, that’s terrible”—the repetitive nature of the list and egregious transgressions can numb one’s understanding of just what “terrible” actually looks like in practice. The following photos from Big Cat Rescue—a Tampa-based nonprofit sanctuary founded in 1992, reports from which are completed independently from those of the USDA and APHIS—should clear up any feelings of vague detachment.

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**WARNING: Graphic images below**

Photo: Big Cat Rescue

A pan of yellowed drinking water left out for one of the sanctuaries animals.

Photo: Big Cat Rescue

One of the tiger exhibits, complete with cement floors, wooden pallets, untrimmed weeds and fallen tree limbs, and a dead raccoon.

Photo: Big Cat Rescue

Pictured above is a cougar who now goes by Mickey. According to Big Cat Rescue, the animal lived in a cage with a cement floor lightly covered in hay at Animal House; when the folks at Big Cat Rescue found him, they say, he was underweight, malnourished, unwashed, and lame. (His rescue is detailed in full in a video by BCR, in which they report that had both of his hind leg ACLs not been torn, he would have easily been able to escape from his poorly constructed enclosure.) As depicted in the video, he was eventually taken from Animal House back to Big Cat Rescue’s sanctuary in Tampa. According to an update video by BCR, the cougar underwent surgery to repair both hind legs; he still walks with a significant limp.

Photo: Big Cat Rescue
Photo: Big Cat Rescue

Pictured above is a leopard stored in a chain-link fence enclosure, who was found with a massive gash above its left paw. The leopard was approximately 20 years old when it was first discovered by someone outside the Animal House community. According to Big Cat Rescue, the animal was suffering from radial nerve paralysis and had been living with the wound for over two years; due to the effects of its illness, the animal chewed the wound without realizing the damage it was causing itself.

Great Cats Of Indiana—Home of Mike VI

Following the death of Mike V in 2007, the LSU crew took to the road in search of a tiger; once again, they settled on a non-AZA-accredited backyard operation—Great Cats of Indiana. Great Cats of Indiana also did not respond to request for comment.

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Unlike the case with Animal House, all but one of the following transgressions occurred before anyone from LSU set foot on the premises in 2007. While the timeline of animal mistreatment dates back to 2002, it is unclear whether LSU officials were eyewitnesses to the following conditions.

After years of being cited for violations of the Animal Welfare Act by the Administrator of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the USDA revoked two of Great Cats’ AWA licenses in 2010—three years after Mike VI was picked up from the property. The transgressions from the USDA’s list of violations matches the inhumanity seen in the Animal House case. You can read the full decision below; here are some of the main items to note:

  • The facility owners and operators continued use of the facility with a license issued to a separate incorporation from 2001 to 2003.
  • They failed to clean the cages of excrement or natural overgrowth, provide clean water, or provide proper shelter from inclement weather for multiple animals.
  • They failed to provide the animals with uncontaminated food.
  • They housed juvenile tigers in enclosures that were legally too small for them and failed to move them to larger enclosures as they grew.
  • No animals were dewormed.
  • The owners did not construct the enclosures with the proper space specifications, resulting in a June 2013 incident in which a customer was able to reach through a cage, touch a bear, and have part of their left index finger bitten off.

According to the USDA report, in November 2006, the owners “misrepresented to inspectors that on October 25-26, 2006, he sought veterinary care from two veterinarians for a jaguar in distress, when both veterinarians confirmed to APHIS that respondent Craig had never so communicated with them.” Great Cats of Indiana did not to seek any professional care for following cases of animal suffering from 2002-2007:

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  • Two emaciated juvenile tigers with brittle coats
  • A cougar that had unhealed wounds on its right front paw for months
  • Wolves with bloody diarrhea
  • Three bears with loose stools
  • A jaguar that stopped eating, became aggressive and then lethargic; the jaguar died without seeing a vet
  • A lion with a dental abscess
  • Three thin tigers
  • Animals in need of fecal exams for the treatment of parasites
  • One tiger, one lion, one jaguar, and four cougars that suffered from vomiting and diarrhea; every single one of the animals died without seeing a vet
  • A tiger with a severed tail; the wound was opened and exposed the bone
  • A cougar with half of a tail, and a bloody open wound on the end
  • An emaciated adult lion
Photo: Big Cat Rescue
Photo: Big Cat Rescue

Both the USDA’s 2010 report and photos from Big Cat Rescue’s independent investigation, which can be reviewed here, show the conditions in Indiana were a marginal improvement on those at Animal House.

Big Cat Rescue obtained a batch of photos from an eyewitness in 2010 that appear to display the living conditions and facilities Great Cats of Indiana housed their exotic animals in. The scenes depicted in the photographs include a tiger housed in a silo with part of its metal side paneling replaced with metal wire, a separate tiger in an enclosure with what appears a pool of algae-covered water, and a pair of tigers being held in an enclosure with a cement floor.

Photo: Big Cat Rescue
Photo: Big Cat Rescue
Photo: Big Cat Rescue

When two tigers broke free Oct. 2, 2010, the owners shot and killed one of the Bengal tigers; the other animal was injured via gunshot, according to both a Monticello Herald Journal article and a report from The Humane Society citing an Indiana DNR incident log.

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According to The Pharos Tribune, four cats were seized by the Indiana Department of Natural Resource in 2011. Seven more animals were removed by the DNR and two wolves were rescued by the White County Sheriff’s Department in 2012, according to a report from WLFI. At the time of Great Cats of Indiana’s permanent closure in 2012, the facility was home to at least four tigers, two wolves, plus a lion, bobcat, and mountain lion.

T.B.D.—Home of Mike VII

According to an article from The Advocate from Oct. 5, “Baker said he would begin the process of finding a new live tiger cub to replace the school mascot immediately.” LSU confirmed the search process is underway in a statement it provided us.

This is no surprise—the Mike The Tiger tradition is one that matters a great deal to those involved in LSU athletics, because it is also important to the fanbase. Once again, a cub may be collected and saved from the fate suffered by some of the animals at Animal House and Great Cats of Indiana. But will the remaining animals—the dozens left behind at the rescue facility—lead short lives full of suffering?

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You can find below statements from animal-safety institutions and zoos that have been contacted over the last week regarding the practice of using a live tiger as a school mascot.

A spokesperson for Little Rock Zoo, the home of Mike I, spoke at length when reached by phone about the reasons AZA-accredited zoos would not allow a tiger cub to be used as a school mascot, pointing to the genetic value of a member of the endangered species as well as the animal’s basic safety:

All the tigers in captivity and in the wild are critically endangered and we wouldn’t want to donate because, actually, we probably couldn’t donate. In captivity, they’re all part of the Species Survival Plan and every single one of them is genetically valuable.

All the zoos, the AZA, which manages the SSP at the beginning, all these zoos and all these plans are made years in advance, sometimes. At least 2-3 years. When the cub is born, it’s like okay, eventually this cub at Little Rock Zoo is going to mate with this sub in Seattle when they’re adults. To remove one of those from the system would be detrimental to our work to conserve the species.

Sometimes people say, ‘Well. why couldn’t you just let Mike come over one day on a gameday? Why couldn’t he just come to the stadium one time and then go back and live at the zoo?” Well, that’s a problem because you have to have them in quarantine. Once they come out of here, they have to be in quarantine, and, if they remain part of the Species Survival Plan, that changes their behavior.

Once they come out of quarantine, you have to do a whole other reintroduction process if they’re mating or paired up, so to speak. And tigers are deadly animals. Tigers have been injured and killed during introductions, male-female.

It’s just a whole array of issues. There’s a lot more reasons not to do it than to do it.

The Woodland Park Zoo replied that it could not verify whether it had actually donated Mike III due to a lack of paper records from the 1950s, but offered the following statement, clarifying beforehand that it could not comment directly on LSU’s situation:

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Tigers, a critically endangered species, are managed in AZA zoos under a Species Survival Plan (SSP), cooperative conservation breeding programs to ensure genetically and healthy populations of animals. AZA institutions have rigorous standards for animal care, acquisition and disposition, and policies that direct animal placement. Today, and during the last 40 [years], Woodland Park Zoo would not donate a tiger for use as a mascot to any school.

The Audubon Zoo, home of Mike II, responded that it would follow the AZA and SSP guidelines:

As an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited facility, Audubon Zoo follows the recommendations of cooperatively managed Species Survival Plan (SSP) Programs which oversee the population management of select species within member institutions. The Tiger SSP works with AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums across North America to maintain sustainable, genetically diverse tiger populations; raise awareness about the plight of tigers in the wild and funding for their conservation; and support research on tiger biology and care.

Busch Gardens, home of Mike IV, offered the following statement when asked if it would consider donating another tiger to become the LSU mascot:

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Any decisions about the transfer of tigers from Busch Gardens Tampa Bay to another facility would be made with consideration of the Species Survival Plan (SSP) established with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA,) and would be based on the quality of care and standards established through an accreditation process or through our own evaluation.

PETA issued the following statement upon the death of Mike VI:

This sad day could mark a kind new beginning for LSU, where sensitive, intelligent tigers have been reduced to game-day props for decades. PETA is calling on the university to honor Mike VI’s legacy by making him the last live mascot to be locked up in captivity and paraded around an unruly stadium. The last thing LSU should do is condemn yet another tiger to a lifetime of exploitation.

When contacted via email, Big Cat Rescue founder and CEO Carole Baskin offered the following statement on LSU’s decision to move forward and obtain a new cub:

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“While we are saddened to see any tiger pass, we are very concerned to learn that LSU Veterinarian David Baker DVM has admitted to local media that he will ‘begin the process of finding a new live tiger cub to replace the school mascot immediately.’”

“Both of the university’s last two tigers — Mike VI and Mike V — were obtained from pseudo sanctuaries which have since been [stripped of their exotic animal licenses] by the federal government for failing to provide proper care. That is not surprising because facilities that breed and sell their cubs are not true, accredited sanctuaries.”

“No [AZA] accredited sanctuary would ever send one of their tigers into a situation where he would be dragged into a stadium full of screaming children so it means every time LSU needs a new tiger they have to go to these bad places to get one.”

Animal House 2006 by Deadspin on Scribd

Great Cats of Indiana 2010 by Deadspin on Scribd