Sunday, May 27, 2007
By Jim Kleinpeter
BATON ROUGE — LSU football coaching searches have nothing on finding a live Bengal tiger mascot.
The field narrows itself down rather quickly for the football coaches. Finding Mike VI, a replacement for recently deceased Mike V, is a wide-open search.
Dr. David Baker, director of laboratory animal medicine at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, and the mascot’s chief caretaker, will conduct the search as authorized by LSU President Williams Jenkins and Chancellor Sean O’Keefe. Baker said the journey could take LSU “anywhere there’s an airport.”
LSU isn’t quite ready to send a plane for Mike VI. Baker still is in the midst of formulating the criteria and the search plan, juggling that among his numerous everyday duties. But the process will be as detailed and cautious as any coaching search.
As in a football coach, a good mascot entails the right fit, and that means looking for the right personality.
“These animals are very difficult to work with, very difficult to care for, because you can’t just take them out of their enclosure and examine them,” Baker said at the press conference to announce Mike V’s death. “The better the personality, the easier it is to provide excellent care.
“One of the reasons we were able to provide such good care for Mike V was that he did have such an excellent personality. He had been hand-raised here.”
Mike V arrived as a 4-month-old cub in 1990, but Baker said the search could net a cub or an adolescent tiger.
There should be plenty available, and LSU might not have to go far to find one, said Joe Forys, assistant curator of mammals for the Audubon Zoo. Forys said though Bengal tigers are an endangered species (he estimates approximately 4,000 remain in the wild) there are between 10,000 and 15,000 tigers in captivity in the United States.
Forys said because of its liberal laws concerning exotic animal trade, Texas is a likely source.
“It’s probably not going to be very hard to find one,” Forys said. “You can go to just about any big city in Texas, and if they aren’t in the paper you can look online in classifieds and find big cats and various kinds of hoof stock for sale.
“They are continuously bred because there is a market. Tiger cubs can go anywhere from $1,500 to $5-$10,000 apiece, depending on if they were orange or white tigers.”
Ginger Guttner, LSU Veterinary School public relations coordinator, said the school is seeking a donor rather than an animal for purchase.
Baker has been unavailable for media interviews because of his workload, but he released some details of the search process through the vet school public relations office.
Guttner said Baker’s first step is to determine the criteria of the animal, including age, characteristics and personality. Guttner said Baker wants one that is “inquisitive and playful.”
The next step is to sort through the numerous calls and e-mails bearing offers and suggestions and pursue any credible leads. If no suitable candidates can be located, the search will shift to Baker’s list of zoos.
Guttner said Baker will first look at pictures and check the lineage, medical history, size, temperament, personality and information on the cat’s handlers.
Baker hopes to narrow the choices to from one to three candidates, then personally visit each one before making the final selection.
Forys said the source will probably be a private owner or a non-accredited facility.
“I don’t know that they will be able to get one from a zoo,” he said. “Zoos deal pretty much with only (accredited) zoos. If we had tigers, (by policy) we could not and would not give one to LSU.”
LSU’s mascot costs about $15,000 per year to maintain, money provided by the athletic department, Guttner said. Two veterinary school students are assigned to him in two-year internships. The Tiger Athletic Foundation is responsible for maintenance of the $3 million, 15,000-square-foot habitat.
Jim Kleinpeter can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3405.