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By Marissa DeCuir
August 31, 2007
For 18 months, Mississippi State University searched for a leader with confidence, personality, stamina — and a tail.
Then Lisa Chrestman, a school veterinary technician, found Ta-Tonka, a 9-week-old English bulldog that carried himself with a charisma befitting the state’s largest university.
“He strutted into the vet school like, ‘I’m going to own this place,’ “ Chrestman recalls of the bulldog that outshined his canine competitors in 2001. “Most are intimidated,” she says. “This one was not.”
Mississippi State is one of at least 33 Division I-A colleges and universities that will kick off the football season with a live animal as a mascot. Since the 1980s, the number of colleges giving room and board to bird and beast has declined from about 40.
But for schools that continue the tradition, mascots have become key symbols of multimillion-dollar college sports enterprises. At most schools, boosters pay for the animals’ upkeep and the expenses — from food and lodging to health care and security — at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars a year.
Deference to the mascot “borders on obsession” at some schools, says Sheldon Steinbach, former general counsel for the American Council on Education, a Washington-based group that represents colleges and universities.
At Texas A&M University in College Station, for example, devotion to the mascot — a collie named Reveille — is so strong that it extends to the grave.
When A&M’s football stadium was renovated in 1999, fans chipped in a few thousand dollars to erect a special scoreboard outside the stadium so sixformer mascots could “follow” the scores of games.
Never mind that the dogs are dead: The idea was to give their grave sites a scoreboard view.
Before the renovation, the scoreboard inside the stadium could be seen from their grave sites. (Miles Marks, president of the 12th Man Foundation, the A&M booster group, says the new scoreboard also serves fans who sit outside the stadium, drive by during a game or come late.)
At Baylor University in Waco, Texas, donors covered the cost of the $1 million habitat of twin black bears Joy and Lady. At LSU in Baton Rouge, Mike the Tiger’s home is three times the size of the house the university provides its chancellor. Cost of the 15,000-square-foot habitat: almost $3 million, covered by donors.
And at the University of North Alabama in Florence, boosters have financed a habitat for lion siblings Una and Leo worth $1.3 million. They also pay about $35,000 a year to care for the two.
Might the money be better spent stemming the rising cost of tuition or on educational programs? That’s what James Boyle wonders. He’s president of the College Parents of America, an advocacy group for parents of college students.
“The average public school tuition room and board is $12,000,” Boyle says. That’s about a third of the cost of caring for the lions. “I think it’s fair to ask the question, ‘Is it really necessary or would a $250 lion suit, filled by a student, do the trick?’ “
Perhaps not as well. A mascot “brings the university together,” says Mary Ann Covey, a psychologist at Texas A&M. She says mascots represent a sentimental rallying point for alumni, inspiring donations to support the mascot and the school.
Concerns about captivity
Animal rights groups aren’t as enamored. Lisa Wathne, an exotic animal specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), says the stadium atmosphere is too stressful for animals. She says the homes for mascots, no matter how elaborate, often are inhumane.
PETA voiced its concerns to LSU after the school’s tiger mascot, its fifth, died of renal failure during an emergency surgery in May. The tiger was 17. Chancellor Sean O’Keefe wrote back: “The current enclosure is large enough for Mike to express normal species-specific behaviors.”
A new Bengal-Siberian tiger is now quarantined in the habitat’s night house while veterinarians observe him. If he adapts, he will become the sixth incarnation of Mike.
Some schools that have given up live mascots share the activists’ concerns. Tom Duddleston, sports information director for the University of Arizona, says his school hasn’t considered replacing Rufus since the wildcat died in the mid-1960s.
“Everyone pretty much understands that 100-degree temperatures and 50,000 screaming fans are not the best way to treat a live, wild animal,” he says.
The University of Wisconsin hasn’t had a live badger since 1947 — about the time Bucky got loose and ran onto the football field during a game, says David Null, director of the school’s archives.
“The team got a delay-of-game call while they tried to round it up and take care of it,” Null says. “They’re feisty little animals. I doubt they’ll ever bring it back.”
Colleges with live mascots defend their treatment of the animals and say the mascots have an educational value.
David Baker, the LSU veterinarian who will continue to care for the next Mike, says the tiger draws 100,000 people a year to its campus habitat, which features an oak tree and waterfall. He says the school is developing a center with information on the tiger’s status as an endangered species and broader issues such as global warming.
Auburn University’s Jamie Bellahsays his Southeastern Raptor Center has taught more than 60,000 children in the past year and a half about raptors, birds of prey and conservation. Bellah, the center’s director, says the school’s performing eagles, Spirit and Nova, live in the center, which also treats injured birds.
About 18,000 people a year visit North Alabama’s lions. “Truly, we’re running a one-exhibit zoo,” says Dan Howard, who cares for Una and Leo.
Schools exhibiting live animals need to be licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That means unannounced, annual inspections to check whether “the animals are being fed properly (and) handled in a way that’s not abusive,” says Jessica Milteer, a USDA spokeswoman.
Schools aren’t worried. Air Force mascots live in the “Hilton of Falcons,” says John Van Winkle, who leads the team that cares for the 15 birds. “They have everything but color TV.”
The University of Memphis tiger is named TOM (for Tigers of Memphis), but he’s living the “life of Riley,” says 1975 alumnus Bobby Wharton, who shares ownership of the tiger.
And Mississippi State’s bulldog is pampered “like one of my kids,” caretaker Chrestman says.
Not every story of mascot decadence is true, however. There have been rumors across the LSU campus that Mike the tiger gets two visits a year from a tigress.
“That’s ridiculous,” Baker says.
A few tigers ago, the school did send Mike to a Florida zoo to breed, Baker recalls. It didn’t go well.
“They were afraid that Mike III would kill the female,” Baker says. “So, after six months, he came back to LSU still a virgin.”
A mascot détente
Psychologist Covey says rituals and superstitions surrounding mascots are deeply engrained.
“If you have a successful program, you don’t want to change anything,” she says. “Luck would change.”
Perhaps that’s one reason Texas A&M’s Reveille can dictate when class ends. The caretaker, Pierce Hunter, takes the collie with him to each of his classes. And on dates — when he has them, he says.
“If (Reveille) barks during one of the classes, that means the professor has bored her and she’s ready to get out of there,” Hunter says. Since he began caring for Reveille in April, she has ended class only once, he says.
Not everyone views Reveille with reverence. “This stuff doesn’t really mean much to me,” says Andrew Kirkendall, an associate professor of history at A&M. “If Reveille were to be in my class, I might ask the student why they were even bringing a dog.”
The passion over mascots has led to various kidnappings by rival schools for generations, but thanks to improved security and something of a détente between many schools, such pranks are mostly a thing of the past.
The U.S. Naval and U.S. Military Academies now have what amounts to an understanding, described by Lt. Derek Dryden, who helps care for Bill, the Navy’s goat: “You don’t touch our goat, and we don’t touch your mule.”
The University of Texas and Texas A&M have a similar understanding when it comes to Bevo the steer and Reveille. “You’d get in pretty big trouble these days for kidnapping them,” says Bevo’s owner, Betty Baker, a longhorn rancher who donates the steer. Not that stealing a steer with a 6-foot horn-span would be easy.
Feeding the beasts
Kidnappers also might have trouble grabbing TOM, the Memphis tiger. The 500-pound tiger usually makes the 18-mile trek from his northern Mississippi home to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium with a six-car police escort.
Remodeling TOM’s rolling habitat of stainless steel and tempered glass cost Wharton, TOM’s owner, $44,000. The businessman says he has spent well over $500,000 caring for the mascot in 16 years. Boosters pick up the remainder — about $22,000 a year, Wharton says.
Wharton couldn’t give an exact estimate of his contributions. “I’m afraid to think about it,” he says. He calls it his “labor of love.”
Donors continue to make TOM and other live mascots possible.
The University of Oklahoma’s mascot is technically the Sooner Schooner, a covered wagon. But the two ponies it takes to pull it, Boomer and Sooner, cost $25,000 to stable each year.
Care for the Air Force Academy’s falcons and the University of Colorado’s buffalo, Ralphie, runs about $20,000 a year. Boosters foot the bill, although Colorado has set up an endowment.
The money covers maintenance, staffing, equipment, travel, housing — and food. The Memphis tiger devours about $6,000 of raw meat a year. Donations from school cafeterias — carrots, fruit and an occasional sweet potato — help defray the cost of the Baylor bears.
To date, LSU’s Tiger Athletic Foundation has received $4 million from 5,600 donors to give Mike a new home and build an educational facility. One of them, Richard Manship, donated $100,000. “I donate to what I think are substantial and worthy causes,” says Manship, president of a Baton Rouge newspaper and television station.
Indeed, the dwindling number of schools that continue housing live animals sees the tradition as a duty.
That’s one reason Mississippi State’s Chrestman refused to give up searching for Ta-Tonka, the bulldog mascot officially known as Bully.
Now, Chrestman believes, she made the perfect choice.
“He turned into an awesome dog,” she says. And a rather active ladies’ man. Chrestman says Bully has fathered three litters of pups.