As if to punctuate what has already been a tumultuous and emotional football season for LSU, Mike the Tiger – who many considered to be the living embodiment of the team's spirit – died on Tuesday at the age of 11.

Mike VI was euthanized by his attending veterinarian David Baker, ending what may be the world's most famous case of a tiger battling cancer.

"It's an emotional thing," said LSU sophomore Staci Shelby, shortly after hearing the news. "A lot of people associate the tiger with football and school spirit and things like that."

 

Can't see the video? Click here. (Video by videographer Moe Athmann)

Over the past few months, Mike VI encountered a lot of firsts. He was already one of only two live tigers mascots for a university team in the nation. And in May, the famous feline was diagnosed with a spindle cell sarcoma in his face after caretakers noticed his eye was bulging.

It was thought to be the first such diagnosis of the rare, incurable cancer in a tiger.

Then Mike became the first such tiger to receive treatment for the cancer in an attempt to extend his life.

LSU Vet school officials, in conjunction with the Mary Bird Perkins-Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center, treated Mike in June with stereotactic radiotherapy, something that is often used for humans but had never been used on a tiger. Stereotactic radio therapy uses a beam of X-rays pinpointing the tumor while providing minimal damage to surrounding cells.

It was a massive undertaking, one that required an after-hours police escort, to anesthetize the 420-pound tiger and bring him across town to the hospital for the treatment.

The treatment was considered an initial success, as scans found the tumor had shrunk. Baker optimistically hoped Mike would live for another year or two.

But two weeks ago, just days after LSU coach Les Miles had been fired, Mike was treated for a sinus infection.

A scan found that the infection was attributed to the resumed growth of the tumor, which started blocking the sinus cavity. The cancer had also aggressively spread throughout the tiger's body. Smaller tumors were found on Mike's neck, hind leg, and throughout his lungs.

Medical staff determined that additional cancer treatments would not save Mike.

Baker, the veterinarian who selected Mike as a cub because of his curious personality and impressive stripes, said he wouldn't be giving any interviews this week about Mike's passing. 

But last week, he said in a news conference that Mike would be cremated and housed in the sports museum along with the past two mascots. Baker also said he's begun the search for a new male tiger cub to replace Mike.

Meanwhile, an online petition, started by LSU alum Andrea Amar, already has more than 102,000 signatures asking LSU not to replace the mascot with a live tiger.

"While the university has done a wonderful job improving the quality of the tiger's enclosure, increasing its size and improving the variety of outdoor activities for the tiger, it is cruel to sentence another tiger to a life confined in a limited space only to be allowed outside for display at football games for entertainment," Amar wrote. "Beyond the confinement of one animal, buying tigers encourages the breeding of tiger cubs outside species survival management plans, and feeds into the black market for tiger meat, furs, and tiger bone."

LSU President F. King Alexander told The Advocate recently that he believes a live tiger brings attention to global animal conservation efforts as well as contributes to the tourism efforts of the state. He noted that captive tigers live longer than wild ones and that Mike lives in a generous enclosure.

While LSU students said they had mixed emotions about replacing the tiger, many students on Tuesday were deeply saddened by the tiger's passing.

LSU sophomores and friends Ella Ruth Hill and Victoria Dekerlegand were in their mass communication class when they saw on their phones the news Mike had died.

They watched the news make its way around the room as other students whispered about the latest to one another.

After class the two were among the many who trickled by Mike's empty enclosure, adorned with cards, balloons and flowers from the tiger's many fans.

"With everything that's happened this season, with football and Les and everything, Mike is something that's so precious to the students, and he's so sweet," Hill said.

Dekerlegand added that a live tiger on campus makes LSU unique.

"Mike is a constant," she said. "Nobody else has a live tiger."

LSU Student Government announced it would host a memorial Wednesday in front of the habitat. 

"Mike taught us how to fight like tigers and we are forever grateful for the opportunity to make him a part of our lives as LSU students," said Student Government President Zack Faircloth in a statement.

Mike was born on July 23, 2005 and came to LSU when he was two years old.

He was donated to the university by Great Cats of Indiana, a rescue facility, that has since been shut down by the federal and state government.

There is no clear timeline on when the new tiger will be identified, but Baker said Mike VI took about three months to find and bring to LSU.

Mike VI's name was actually a misnomer, because he was truly LSU's seventh tiger mascot. In the 1950s, Mike II died with a few months of coming to LSU, so officials secretly replaced him with a new tiger while insisting it was the same one.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.