LSU’s beloved live mascot, Mike the Tiger, has been diagnosed with a rare, inoperable and terminal form of cancer.
But his medical team estimates the 11-year-old, 420-pound big cat could live comfortably for one or two more years with an innovative form of therapy that is being planned for him in conjunction with Baton Rouge’s Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center. Without the treatment, it’s expected he would die within a couple months.
David Baker, Mike’s veterinarian, said Mike is not in pain and not exhibiting any signs of distress.
But the tumor located on the right side of the tiger’s face, which was first noticed by an LSU vet student on May 1, is large enough that it is displacing his eye.
“This is a very serious, complex and life-threatening condition,” Baker said at a Monday news conference.
“I’d like to assure the LSU community we are taking this very seriously, and you have my promise that we’re doing all that we can to extend Mike’s life while maintaining his quality of life.”
On May 12, Mike was put under general anesthesia and given a computed tomography scan, commonly referred to as a CT scan, which identified the tumor.
A biopsy of the tumor found that Mike has a spindle cell sarcoma, which Baker said could be the first diagnosis of the condition in a tiger. He said he knows of five other similar tumors that have been identified in tigers, but none were treated.
Baker and Jonas Fontenot, chief of medical physics at Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center in Baton Rouge, announced a first-of-its-kind treatment plan for Mike, which will require the tiger to be sedated and transported across town to the Mary Bird Perkins Center for stereotactic radiotherapy. Mary Bird Perkins is known for its cancer therapy in the region, but it does not typically treat animals.
“We are on the edge here, we are doing things that have not been done,” Baker said of the experimental treatment.
Unlike chemotherapy, a drug that attacks cancerous cells throughout the body, stereotactic radiotherapy uses a beam of X-rays pinpointing the tumor while providing minimal damage to surrounding cells. Mary Bird Perkins oversees about 300 treatments of the therapy per year, Fontenot said.
More than a decade ago, Mary Bird Perkins occasionally treated pets with cancer at their facility, Fontenot said, but it hasn’t done so since the LSU Vet School established its own radiation treatment center. He said the center has never treated a large animal like a tiger.
Baker and Fontenot said they are hopeful Mike will only have to undergo a single treatment. It’s unclear when the treatment will occur, but Baker said he believes it will be “sooner rather than later.”
Logistics for anesthetizing the tiger and transporting him to a facility designed for humans will be a tremendous labor, Baker said, requiring a police escort to ensure public safety.
Baker said when Mike was sedated for the CT scan it took him three days to recover, suggesting some “fragility” in his kidneys, which caused concern about repeatedly giving anesthesia to the feline.
“It’s possible he might not survive those anesthetic episodes,” Baker cautioned.
Fontenot said Mary Bird Perkins would be absorbing the cost of Mike’s cancer therapy.
LSU Vet School Dean Joel Baines said the collaboration between LSU and the cancer center is a reminder that medical treatment and study can cross over from animals to people.
“Just think that some of the diseases that humans suffer from afflict animals as well, and the study of these can benefit understanding and treatment of the other,” he said. “In this way veterinary medicine can benefit humans and human medicine can benefit animals.”
Mike came to LSU in 2007 at the age of 2. He’s officially the sixth live tiger mascot of the university and one of two tigers that serve as live mascots for university teams in the country — the other being at the University of Memphis.
Tigers living in captivity tend to live between 14 and 18 years, while wild tigers live between eight and 12 years, Baker said. He noted he was surprised by the tumor considering Mike’s relatively young age.
The latest Mike the Tiger has received attention in recent years for being less willing than his predecessors to engage in the tradition of being transported around Tiger Stadium before football games for the fans.
But Baker said there’s no apparent connection between the Tiger’s refusal to attend football games and his medical condition.
Ernie Ballard, a university spokesman, said it’s too early to be talking about replacing Mike with another tiger. But he said ultimately Baker would let university leadership know about Mike’s condition, and officials would form a plan if it turns out Mike’s condition is critical.
The past three tigers were donated, he said, and the hope is that any future live mascots would also be donated by tiger sanctuaries.
The most recent Mike, formally named Roscoe, was donated by Great Cats of Indiana, a nonprofit rescue for big cats that was closed in recent years by the state after reports of malnutrition and inadequate cages.
As of Monday, Mike, a Bengali-Siberian hybrid, could be seen napping as usual in his 15,000-square-foot enclosure, located next to Tiger Stadium.
“He’s still tearing bushes up in his yard, playing with his ball,” Baker said of his condition.