After a video of Mike the Tiger stalking and pouncing toward a visitor standing behind a glass wall went viral this week, fans of LSU's beloved mascot have gotten both a lesson in zoology and a reminder about Mike's safety.
Tigers instinctively attack prey from behind, but baiting Mike VII to jump at the glass could cause him to hurt himself. The big danger is breaking a tooth, which is the number one cause of death for tigers, said Ginger Guttner, communications manager of the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine.
The video, posted Sunday on social media, shows Mike slowly moving towards a man who has his back turned to the enclosure before the 21-month-old tiger erupts from a crouch against the glass of his habitat on LSU's campus. The clip quickly spread online, racking up 84,000 shares and 3.9 millions views by Thursday afternoon.
"What makes the video problematic is that someone is going to see it and it encourages others to make their own video," Guttner said. "We just don’t want people to engage in behavior with the tiger that could cause him to harm himself."
Can't see video below? Click here.
While Guttner said she doesn't think the people in the video were being malicious, Mike breaking a tooth on the glass could cause him trouble eating. Putting him under anesthesia to fix it would bring on a host of other risks.
Guttner, who manages Mike's social media, has seen similar videos with past tigers, but none that gained as much traction as this one. The viral nature of the video prompted Guttner's social media team to post a picture of a sign on Mike's habitat with information and rules on interacting with him. The sign includes a familiar reminder not to bring pets or stuffed animals to the habitat, which the team pushed on social media when Mike first arrived at LSU last fall.
"Please do not approach the glass with live or stuffed animals," the sign reads. "Mike VII is very playful. If he throws himself against the glass in an effort to get to the 'animal,' he might break a tooth. Also, please do not encourage Mike to jump at the glass or fence at all."
The video's caption — "I learned why you don't turn your back on a tiger" — hints at an important zoology lesson: Tigers always stalk and attack their prey from behind, which has prompted people working in rice fields in Southeast Asia to wear masks on the back of their heads to deter attacks, said Baton Rouge Zoo General Curator Sam Winslow.
People also started wearing backwards masks at a tiger reserve in India in the 1980s, dramatically reducing the number of tiger attacks there, according to an archived New York Times article.
"When someone turns their back on a tiger, they’re automatically susceptible to attack, is the way the tiger perceives it," Winslow said.
There are three tigers at the Baton Rouge Zoo and though they are different subspecies than Mike, Winslow said, they all have the same hunting instincts. The zoo's tigers are Malayan and Sumatran tigers while Mike is a hybrid of a Siberian and Bengal tiger, he said.
Because humans raised Mike at the Wild at Heart Wildlife Center in Okeechobee, Florida, Winslow said, the young tiger might interact with people more readily than the tigers at the zoo, which were raised by their parents.
And Guttner encourages visitors to engage with Mike, noting that his habitat was designed for people to get an up close view.
"We certainly want people to engage with the tiger, but again we just want to make sure they do it in a way that's safe," Guttner said. "It's fun for you, but it could be potentially harmful for him."