The next Mike the Tiger will not be paraded around LSU football games as cheerleaders ride atop his golden cage — a major departure as the university seeks to simultaneously continue and update the decades-old tradition of keeping a live mascot on campus.
LSU announced on Thursday that the university expects to have a new tiger by August, just in time for football season. But some of Mike VII's experiences will differ from his predecessor, Mike VI, who died in October after battling cancer. The next tiger will not attend home football games, will live in a newly renovated habitat and his home may have the title of tiger sanctuary.
As if to punctuate what has already been a tumultuous and emotional football season for LSU,…
"Times change, public perception changes," said Mike's longtime veterinarian, David Baker, who will hand pick the next tiger. "The mascot program has changed, has evolved over the course of 80-plus years and it continues to evolve. Many, many years ago, when Mike was brought onto the field, if he didn't roar, someone would poke him with a stick. Can you imagine doing that now?"
Mike VII not being allowed at football games could be a crucial difference in whether LSU is able to become an accredited tiger sanctuary. The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries has the most rigorous accreditation standards, with one expert calling it "the only legitimate accrediting body," and another calling "the gold star" of accrediting agencies.
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That group will not accredit a so-called sanctuary unless its animals are not moved from their enclosures for non-medical reasons. Parading Mike at home games would prevent LSU from receiving its accreditation.
While LSU has indicated the university wants accreditation for Mike's habitat, Baker would not say whether the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries is the accrediting agency they want to work with. "We would prefer to wait and make sure that everything works out before we release that information," he said.
An official with the organization said the federation keeps their applicants confidential while they are going through the accreditation process.
It’s a tough pill to swallow for thousands in the LSU community: Mike VI, the impressive, 42…
But Baker said preventing Mike from attending future home games is a requirement for the type of sanctuary accreditation LSU wants. He emphasized that LSU never forced Mike VI to attend football games, always giving the big cat the option of whether he wanted to load into his cage.
Some animal welfare experts say keeping Mike away from football games will make a major quality of life difference, and cheered the decision.
"I certainly applaud that they're moving in a direction that seems to be welfare focused," said Kellie Heckman, the executive director of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.
Debbie Leahy, manager of captive wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States, said showing off Mike during home games was a major concern of her agency. She said that kind of activity causes unnecessary stress for tigers.
"Taking them into an arena of screaming fans and exposing a big cat to all of that chaos is just cruel, in my opinion," said Carole Baskin, the founder CEO of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida. "I'm very glad they're not doing that. I think it still sends the wrong message to keep a cat in a glass case just to say you have one, but it's a whole lot better than what they had."
But Jeff Dorsen, the executive director of the Humane Society of Louisiana, said the changes do not address his underlying problem with LSU's live mascot. Regardless of whether Mike stays or leaves his habitat, Dorsen said LSU's tiger habitat is still using a wild animal for entertainment and amusement.
Mike the Tiger will stay in his home habitat during home football games for the 2016 season,…
He said LSU's new plans perpetuate the problem by "putting a little polish on something that's still terrible at its very core."
The title "sanctuary" can also be a misleading one. No regulation restricts whether groups can use "sanctuary" in their name, regardless of how they treat animals, said Heckman, the official with the accrediting group.
Both Mike VI and his predecessor, Mike V, came to LSU from places that called themselves sanctuaries, though neither was accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. Both were also shut down for chronic violations over the health of their animals and the safety of the public, though Baker has defended the sourcing of the previous tigers.
Baker said he has started reviewing possible tigers to become Mike VII, and LSU is looking for a young, male tiger. He pointed to instances of governments confiscating tigers from irresponsible owners or rescues that close down as possible ways for LSU to find a mascot, and he also said he has relationships "in the sanctuary community" that could lead to the next tiger.
"These rescue tigers come up constantly," Baker said. "There are so many of them. There will be no problem in identifying an excellent tiger in need of a sanctuary home."
LSU's choice to target a young, male tiger could complicate the process, as many animals who wind up in sanctuaries are older and not in good health, Leahy said. She said she would prefer for LSU to be more flexible in its search.
LSU has also timed the search for the next tiger around renovations that will start in April to Mike's habitat. A list of repairs piled up after Mike VI died, Baker said, the biggest being repairing and replacing the pool lining where Mike VI frequently swam and charmed visitors.
He said the university will also transform the center column that holds up the mesh above the habitat to look more like a tree, add a hot and cold rock that can warm up or cool down the tiger as he strolls outside, repaint chain link fencing and repair some night house structures.
The repairs will cost "several hundreds of thousands of dollars," Baker said, but said the official estimate has not been determined yet. Private donations collected by the Tiger Athletic Foundation will pay for the renovations, including royalty money from Baker's book about the live mascot's history.
Photos: Mike VI mourned at memorial service for beloved LSU tiger
Students, faculty, staff and visitors gather at the Mike the Tiger habitat during a memorial service, Wednesday, October 12, 2016, for the late Mike VI who passed away on Tuesday following a four month battle with terminal cancer at LSU in Baton Rouge, La.