BATON ROUGE, La. — Back in 2004, Animal Planet wanted to find a definitive answer to a simple question: What is the world’s favorite animal?
So, the search began. The network polled more than 50,000 people from 73 different countries, asking them to rank a list of 10 animals from favorite to least favorite. And when the results came back, they seemed to go against any and all logic.
Dogs didn’t top the list. Man’s best friend had to settle for second. Horses have helped humanity thrive for centuries, but they couldn’t crack the top 3. And none of our evolutionary cousins from the order of the primates even ranked in the top 5.
No, the No. 1 spot didn’t belong to a cute or cuddly or friendly or loving animal. Rather, we bequeathed the honor of the world’s favorite animal to a lonesome, solitary predator that has been a danger to humans for as long as humans have been around.
That’s right. The world’s favorite animal is the tiger.
But you wouldn’t have to tell that to Louisiana natives and LSU supporters.
In 1936, Louisiana State University used $750 donated by the student body to purchase “Sheik,” a young male tiger who lived at the Little Rock Zoo. One year later, Sheik, who had since been renamed “Mike the Tiger,” moved into a permanent enclosure on LSU’s campus, where he lived for 20 years until his death in 1957.
Fast forward 80 years to Oct. 11, 2016. Six months after being diagnosed with spindle cell sarcoma and one day after entering into hospice care, LSU’s beloved Mike VI passed away. He was 11 years old.
Days later, LSU fans showed up to his enclosure in droves to memorialize Mike’s memory. Students congregated outside to leave messages and cards for their departed mascot and mourn his passing.
But as is often the case in situations such as this, the conversation quickly shifted from how to memorialize Mike VI to how to prepare for Mike VII.
On Thursday afternoon, LSU announced that it expects Mike VII to arrive in Baton Rouge by August, just in time for the start of the 2017 LSU football season. But with Mike VII will come some changes.
No longer will Mike the Tiger be paraded out into Tiger Stadium on football gamedays. He’ll stay in his enclosure seven days a week, including football Saturdays. Additionally, LSU is seeking accreditation for Mike’s habitat as a licensed tiger sanctuary. If LSU receives accreditation, this will mean LSU has been recognized as an ethical and responsible habitat that “has met the high standards of excellence in animal care.”
Still, the debate rages on about whether housing a live tiger on a college campus violates an animal’s basic rights. And, as it turns out, that question is a surprisingly complicated one to answer.
The Mike the Tiger debate
Tigers are among the most endangered species on Earth. Scientists and conservationists estimate there are between 3,800 and 3,900 wild tigers left. And though we’ve seen a slight uptick in tiger population over the last 15 years, the World Wildlife Fund still lists all tigers as endangered species, with Sumatran and South Chinese tigers labeled as “critically endangered.”
Despite this, there are more than 5,000 tigers living in captivity in the Unites States alone. This number includes tigers housed at zoos and in wildlife sanctuaries, as well as those kept for entertainment purposes or as personal pets.
Mike the Tiger counts among those 5,000 and, because he’s quite possibly the most high-profile captive tiger in the United States, he’s the subject of quite a bit of scorn from the animal rights community.
Perhaps no group has been more outspoken in its criticism of Mike the Tiger than the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA. According to Kenneth Montville, PETA’s manager of college campaigns, PETA’s stance is that wild tigers don’t belong on college campuses as it is exploitative and abusive to the animal.
“Let’s assume that Mike has the best care ever,” Montville said. “Even making that assumption, for a tiger, LSU still amounts to solitary confinement. As much as the human caretakers claim they may love the tiger, their affection isn’t really a substitute for the freedom to roam outdoors in a natural setting or the possibility of being with other tigers.”
From a logical perspective, Montville is correct. LSU only houses one animal at a time, preventing Mike from interacting with other tigers and from stalking prey as he would in the wild. But scientifically speaking, there is no evidence to show that captivity has adverse effects on a tiger’s well-being.
Dr. John Goodrich is the senior tiger program director for Panthera, a worldwide organization devoted to the conservation of big cat species around the world. Goodrich spent 16 years — from 1995 to 2011 — studying tigers in Russia, tracking them to learn their ecological tendencies in an attempt to help preserve the species.
And, as Goodrich explained to SEC Country, tigers are solitary animals. Male tigers in particular tend to only interact with the females of their species once a month, and those interactions can last as few as a couple of minutes.
Instead, male tigers are notorious migrant. Some males have been known to have home ranges as large as 2,000 square kilometers, which is roughly the distance from Philadelphia to New Orleans. As a result, it goes without saying that tigers in the wild require swaths of land to survive.
This only seems to prove Montville’s case that tigers shouldn’t be confined in small habitats. But anecdotally speaking, that claim might not be founded.
“I don’t know. It’s something I have thought a lot about,” Goodrich said. “You go to a zoo and you look at the tigers and if it’s a nice enclosure, large enough and interesting enough for them, they seem to be pretty well adjusted and wander around a little bit being fairly relaxed. Whereas, you can go to the wolf enclosure and it doesn’t matter how big it is. Those wolves are just pacing back and forth. You feel like you just want to open up the door and let the wolves out. They need to move more. Whereas I don’t feel like it matters as much to tigers.”
In some ways, a lot of this argument is futile. It’s impossible to truly know what a tiger is thinking. Unless, of course, you’re Steve Cotner.
The life and times of Roscoe
2005 was a particularly fertile year in Idaville, Ind.
Idaville was the home of “Great Cats of Indiana,” an attraction that housed big cats of all species, as well as bears and other large carnivores. In a span of a couple of months, two of Great Cats of Indiana’s tigers and one of its bobcats all became pregnant. And Rob Craig, the establishment’s owner, couldn’t raise all those animals on his own.
Craig’s solution? Split up the cubs and let employees and volunteers raise one apiece.
One of the more active cubs was a young tiger named Roscoe. Roscoe took an immediate liking to Steve Cotner, who helped out at Great Cats of Indiana at the time, and followed Cotner around wherever he went. So Cotner decided to take Roscoe home.
“I basically treated him like a pup or a kitten,” Cotner said. “I think the more love you give them and the more people you get them around when they’re young, the more socialized they’re going to be. Once they learn to trust humans and realize that not all of them are a threat to them or are able to disclose which ones are going to be a threat to them, they mellow out pretty good.”
And Roscoe was mellow all right. So mellow, in fact, that he caught the eye of Dr. David Baker, the attending veterinarian at LSU. Baker trekked up to Indiana in 2007 as part of the search for Mike VI. And despite Cotner’s efforts to hide Roscoe from Baker, Roscoe’s personality couldn’t be contained.
“Being that he was my tiger, I kept trying to hide him,” Cotner said. “But Roscoe just kept coming up to the fence and just rubbing up against the fence and wanting Dr. Baker to interact with him.”
Cotner didn’t want to let Roscoe go. But Baker persuaded him. So like a father seeing his child off to college for the first time, Cotner let go, acknowledging that Roscoe would have a longer and healthier life as Mike the Tiger. He’d always have physicians on call and doting fans around to admire him. And he’d live in a much nicer enclosure than even the best that Indiana could’ve offered to him.
So, Roscoe headed to Baton Rouge and became Mike the Tiger. Seven years later, Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources revoked Craig’s permits and seized all his animals on grounds of malnourishment and insufficient cages and habitats. Great Cats of Indiana is no more.
Cotner made it to Baton Rouge one day too late.
When Mike VI fell ill, some LSU fans set up a GoFundMe page to bring Cotner to Louisiana to see the cat he had raised one last time. LSU fans raised more than $3,000, covering all of Cotner’s expenses. But Mike VI’s health deteriorated faster than anyone expected.
By the time Cotner arrived in Louisiana, all he could do was attend Mike’s memorial service.
Instead of getting to say goodbye, one of Cotner’s last memories of seeing Mike was a much more positive one.
“He was laying on the track side in the bamboo,” Cotner remembered. “There was a lot of people at the gate. Well, I’m standing behind them. I didn’t think he could hear me. I was calling him Roscoe, and that in itself kind of upset some people. But finally I got up there close enough and called his name Roscoe and he raised his head up and jumped right over to me and rubbed against the glass. He knew me. He knew who I was.”
To Cotner and to troves of LSU fans everywhere, that’s the legacy that Mike VI leaves behind.
But PETA would prefer it if the latest Mike the Tiger left more than just a warm personality and a cute face behind.
“Really, the best way to honor Mike the VI’s legacy would be to make him the last live mascot locked up in captivity and paraded around,” Montville said. “If they really wanted to promote team spirit or if they cared about tigers the way they say they do, they would donate to a reputable sanctuary or toward conservation efforts to help tigers in the wild.”
The conservation conversation
There’s more than one way to save a cat.
Tiger population around the world is stabilizing, but it’s still not where it should be. In 1900, it’s estimated that more than 100,000 tigers roamed free around the globe. But after a century of incentivized poaching, ritualistic use of tiger bones in Eastern medicine and rapid human interference in tiger habitats, the world tiger population is approximately 96 percent smaller than it once was.
And though the captive tiger population is pretty stable, reintroducing captive tigers into the wild isn’t a solution either. For lack of a better term, a significant yet incalculable percentage of the American tiger population are mutts.
There are six subspecies of tigers that haven’t yet gone extinct: Bengal, Siberian, Indochinese, Malayan, Sumatran and South Chinese. Each of those subspecies evolved traits that allow them to specifically survive in their natural habitats. But many captive tigers are crossbred between multiple subspecies; for example, Mike VI was half Bengal and half Siberian.
Therefore, many captive tigers would have a hard time surviving in the wild, especially if they were raised in captivity and never learned to hunt or stalk prey.
“If you were to take a zoo animal that’s been raised in captivity, I suspect that a lot is lost through those generations in a captivity,” Goodrich, the Panthera expert, said. “A lot of natural fear of humans and other things that they need to be afraid in their environment, maybe some of their natural instincts for hunting, some of those things.”
Given this conundrum, it’s impossible for activist groups to argue against the Mike the Tiger tradition from a conservationist’s perspective. So, instead, the argument comes from a place of humanity.
“There’s nothing naturalistic about his enclosure,” Montville said. “He can’t hunt, he can’t stalk, even assuming he did want the company of other tigers, obviously males are more solitary, but it’s not a choice he can make. … But there are humane alternatives. I’ve heard of colleges sponsoring tigers who are their mascots in sanctuaries, to pay homage to their animal mascots in a more humane way.”
The humane alternative
Research on chimpanzees conducted at Emory University indicates that, psychologically speaking, public use of endangered species harms the species more than it helps it.
Seeing a chimpanzee in a tuxedo on television makes it harder to believe that chimps are endangered. The same premise is true of live animal mascots. If you see one daily on your college campus, you’re going to have a harder time sympathizing with the plight of anonymous tigers in Russia, China and India.
But LSU has exposure on its side. Thank to the notoriety the university and its football team boast, a message from LSU on behalf of tigers everywhere could be monumental.
“When you raise a tiger in front of an arena full of people, what an amazing fundraising opportunity for conservation and for wild tigers,” Goodrich said. “And they should be taking advantage of that. When they march that tiger out there, let people know. Put it up on the screen. Tigers in the wild are in danger and we need to do something about it.”
LSU is going to continue the Mike the Tiger tradition. It doesn’t have to, but it will.
But that doesn’t mean LSU can’t also simultaneously advocate for tigers. Becoming an accredited tiger sanctuary is one step. But donating to larger sanctuaries and to conservation efforts around the globe is another.
Because the tiger is the world’s favorite animal. And Cotner wants to make sure that remains the truth for a long, long time.
“I want my grandchildren to be able to see a tiger,” he said. “Not a stuffed tiger. Not a picture of one. But they need to see a real tiger, a real lion, a real leopard, whatever it may be. I want them to have the opportunity to see them.”