By Jim Kleinpeter
BATON ROUGE – Mike the Tiger wasn’t just a circus animal or a sideshow to New Orleans lawyer Eric Person.
When it came time for a donation to sponsor oak trees around LSU’s campus, Person plunked down $1,500 for the first one in front of the tiger habitat on North Stadium Drive.
He also makes it a point to be in his Tiger Stadium seat during Mike’s traditional pre-game circuit in his cage.
So it was with heavy heart that Person remembered Mike V. The 17-year-old Bengal tiger died of renal failure at 2:23 a.m. Friday after emergency surgery to remove fluid from his lungs at the LSU Veterinary School.
“He was a beautiful animal,” Person said. “It’s sad because he is the symbol of the University and LSU sports. He meant a lot to a lot of people.”
No one more than perhaps Dr. David Baker, Mike’s caretaker, who has written a history of LSU’s five live mascots. Baker said Mike was diagnosed with idiopathic chylothorax after he was discovered having difficulty breathing Wednesday, and he would not have survived more than a week without surgery. The kidney failure was the result of the anesthesia.
Mike was placed on a dialysis treatment but it was unsuccessful.
“Mike was a special tiger and a pleasure to care for,” Baker said at a press conference. “He was well cared for and had a long life and a good life.”
Bengal tigers have a lifespan of 14-16 years in captivity and eight-12 years in the wild, Baker said.
Mike the Tiger was a large part of the school’s sports tradition, making several public appearances and becoming a beloved part of the pregame football festivities. Mike rode around the field to the delight of screaming fans before football games and cheerleaders would bang on his portable to cage to elicit a growl, which tradition said guaranteed a touchdown for LSU. But because of complaints of cruelty, the practice was discontinued and the school now uses recorded growls.
During Mike V’s tenure, LSU won a football national championship, five baseball national championships and a remarkable 23 track and field championships, along with 37 various SEC titles from 1990 to 2007.
Mike V was born Oct. 18, 1989 and donated to LSU by Dr. Thomas and Carol Atchison of the Animal house Zoological Park in Moulton, Ala.
He was introduced to LSU fans at the LSU-Alabama men’s basketball game fourth months later, Shaquille O’Neal’s freshman year. Mike officially became the mascot on April 30, 1990 when he moved into the 2,000 square foot habitat between Tiger Stadium and the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
He moved into a new $3 million habitat, provided for by a capital fund-raising effort, about a year ago. The 15,000 square foot facility includes a waterfall and bathing pool.
Generations of LSU fans have paraded past the site to see the tiger or used it as a point of reference or meeting place.
“Whenever we meet people, that’s where we go,” Person said. “When I was in law school, I used to meet my wife there often just to sit and hold hands.”
Baker said Mike’s remains would be cremated and the school is in the process of planning a memorial. Baker said the school will soon begin a search for a male Bengal tiger to become Mike VI. He said it could be a cub or adolescent animal, but that cubs are better to work with.
“A cub can be hand raised and it makes them easier to work with when they are older,” Baker said. “These animals are very difficult to raise and care for.”
Mike V was the third longest serving mascot. Mike I, named after then-athletic trainer Mike Chambers, was the mascot from 1936-57. Mike II died after one year and Mike III reigned from the football program’s first national championship in 1958 until 1975.
Mike IV was retired in 1990 after 14 years and died in 1995 at the age of 21.
“Mike V was a noble mascot who was loved by Tiger fans young and old, and he represented all that is proud and dignified about LSU,” LSU athletic Director Skip Bertman said. “Mike has reigned over a magnificent era of Tiger athletics and he is missed today by LSU fans the world over.”
Jim Kleinpeter can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3405.
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