Lindsey Clemones entered LSU’s live tiger habitat on April 30 to say goodbye to Mike the Tiger.
Clemones, along with fellow LSU Veterinary School student Trevor Davis, were selected as Mike’s student caretakers for the past two years, a coveted position that offers them daily access to the beloved mascot that most LSU superfans could only dream of.
With graduation upon them, they visited the famous feline from the inside of his habitat one last time. They opened the doors to let him into the night house and gave him his food. And as they bid their goodbyes, through protective bars, Clemones saw the swelling on Mike’s face.
“I was talking to him and looking at him, and I noticed he had a slight swelling that I hadn’t noticed before,” she said. “I called Dr. (David) Baker that night and said this was something we were really concerned about, and he took it seriously.”
That swelling turned out to be a rare spindle cell sarcoma in the right side of Mike’s face. Within a year or two, the tumor will take Mike’s life. The cancer is incurable and inoperable, but because it was detected, Mike’s veterinary team had time to get him treatment needed to extend his life.
Mike’s primary veterinarian, Baker, said recently that Mike would have died in a couple weeks without the radiation therapy he was given at Mary Bird Perkins-Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center.
But for Clemones, the news has only made saying goodbye to Mike that much more difficult.
“We’re so close to him, and he’s such a big part of our lives,” she said. “I knew my time at some point would come to an end with him, but it’s hard to hand that key over to the next caretaker and say, ‘Here’s a key to the most important tiger in the world, and by the way, something is wrong with him.’ ”
Every two years, Baker personally selects Mike’s student caretaker team. Students apply and interview in pairs.
“We don’t know what he’s looking for, and he won’t tell us,” Clemones said of the selection process.
Clemones and Davis were selected for the two-year job, which is as demanding as it is prestigious.
The job requires that at least one member of the team visit Mike twice a day, every day, even on holidays. Every day, they feed the cat, scoop his poop, hose down his night house, make up a bed of shavings for him and prep his food for the next day. Sometimes they weigh him and give him flea prevention treatment. They also regularly check him for any abnormalities, check his enclosure for foreign objects and play with him — from a distance. One of the two of them had to be within 20 minutes of Mike at all times.
“For two years, my whole schedule revolved around whether I can take care of him,” she said.
The team also has helped contribute to Mike’s wildly popular social media presence. Davis became known for shaping Mike’s food into artful representations of the mascots of the opposing teams LSU’s football team plays in the fall.
Clemones, who grew up near LSU, said she’s always loved Mike the Tiger the mascot, but she feels a personal relationship with Mike VI.
“If something were to happen to Mike, I’d feel as upset as if something happened to my dog. There have been countless crying incidents regarding his diagnosis and treatment,” she said, adding that she felt pained that she couldn’t be with Mike through his cancer treatment.
And while Mike is a dangerous wild animal, Clemones said the tiger forms relationships with his caretakers. “He recognizes me, he knew the sound of my car horn, he knows the sound of my keys,” she said. “He gets excited when he sees me.”
But Clemones certainly isn’t the only person feeling saddened by the news of his grim prognosis. After news of his cancer became public, Mike received flowers from other famous animals including Reveille the collie, Tusk the razorback and Bevo XV, the steer, who are the live mascots of Texas A&M, the University of Arkansas and the University of Texas at Austin, respectively. Locally, he also received some well-wishes and sunflowers from the tigers at the Baton Rouge Zoo.
Meanwhile, Ginger Guttner, the vet school spokeswoman, said Mike has been sent “get well” cards, notes, stuffed animals and other gestures from dozens of people.
Clemones, 31, who is now a licensed veterinarian working in Baton Rouge, said it’s weighed heavily on her that she did not spot the tumor sooner. “You always have that thought of ‘What if?’ What if I had noticed it sooner?” she said.
But the swelling was slight, and Mike’s eye was not tearing. Baker has repeatedly pointed out that Mike’s behavior was never distressed. And Clemones said Baker told her that she caught it as early as it was possible to detect it.
“It’s so heartbreaking to think that Mike might not be around very long, but I feel so lucky that I got to be with him perfectly healthy for two years,” she said.