Two years ago, I was one of 53,000 spectators packed inside Folsom Field at the University of Colorado for a pregame activity. We weren’t there to see a special rendition of the national anthem. It was not senior day or homecoming.
No. It was CU-Boulder gameday.
Which meant that Ralphie was going to run.
Ralphie is a female bison that barrels around the football field before every CU home game, a tradition that has spanned 53 years.
The pageantry of Ralphie’s run is one of many unique college football pregame traditions. At first, seeing a live bison run around a stadium was exhilarating. I could hear her hooves thundering down the sideline and I could see the animal truck shake when she charged inside her crate. But after the performance was over, and the game kicked off, I couldn’t help myself from thinking, “something about this doesn’t sit well here.”
Like many of you, I binged “Tiger King.” The series was captivating, somewhat depressing, and acutely bizarre. I am not suggesting that the gun toting, reckless, and criminal behavior at Joe Exotic’s G.W. Zoo goes on at college campuses. But the series did get me thinking about the mascots some universities house, and how they are used to “drum up school spirit.”
There is Tom the Tiger who sits in a small soundproof cage during University of Memphis football games. And there’s Mike the Tiger at LSU. He may not go to games anymore, but he can be seen on campus (and via this livecam).
To be fair, Mike’s nearly $1 million home seems like a much better place than the G.W. Zoo. And for that matter, I’d bet Bevo the longhorn, Cam the Ram, the Baylor Bears and the War Eagle are all well fed and taken care of by their respective universities.
All of the mascots mentioned above have their own space and personal caregivers. Because the majority of these animals are rescues, they can’t be released into their own natural habitat.
Years ago, I spoke with one of Ralphie’s handlers. He told me all the things I expected to hear. I learned that Ralphie lives on a rescue ranch with a few other other bison, she has acres to roam and is well fed.
I believed the handler. But I still wondered if a football stadium with screaming fans is really the place for a wild animal, even if it’s only for a few saturdays a year.
I am not a zoologist, an animal expert, or even a vegetarian. I’m just a football fan who saw an unusual college tradition two years ago and an even weirder documentary series on big cats two weeks ago. But, it’s hard to separate the sport from the animal when you see videos like Bevo attacking UGA at the 2019 Sugar Bowl or Ralphie running over a handler at the 2008 CU spring game.
The discourse around live animal mascots is divisive and lacks any kind of middle ground. One side loves the mascots and sees no harm, the other thinks all mascots, including domesticated animals, should be removed.
Maybe this is nothing but a lame hot take, but I don’t think the best place for a wild, endangered animal is a football stadium. At the same time, however, there seems to be a way to conserve the animal on a college campus for the betterment of the community and, most importantly, the rescue animal.
In the last episode of Tiger King, Joe Exotic’s campaign manager, Joshua Dial, said something that resonated.
“Everyone is lost in this,” he told the filmmaker. “We’ve completely lost touch with what really matters here. And that’s the conservation and protection of the species on this planet.”
We should conserve endangered animals like tigers and bison. Which is why using them at live sporting events feels like we’ve lost touch, too.