College sports teams heart their four-footed mascots. Although many teams opt for a dog mascot or two, even more are captivated by cats — wild cats, to be precise. And we mean big cats of all stripes, from tigers, cougars, and panthers to jaguars, lions, and leopards. It’s no shock that cats rule on campus. Feline qualities admired by athletically minded humans include speed, power, poise, balance, quick wits, killer instincts, and an intimidating appearance — and these attributes are appreciated and emulated by college sports teams that play to win.
For years, the University of Houston Cougars looked up to Shasta, their live, on-campus cougar mascot. Ever since the last Shasta was retired to the nearby zoo, UH — like the majority of educational institutions today — keeps a feline mascot in spirit only, getting a student to don a big-cat costume for games.
Meanwhile, Southern University held the dubious distinction of being the only historical black college to own a live jaguar mascot. Her name was Lacumba, which means “Heart of Africa,” and she lived her life in a cage (yes, a cage) behind the football stadium until her death of kidney failure in 2004 at age 15. This reporter was happy to learn that plans to acquire a replacement Lacumba are on indefinite hold, and that the university’s chancellor, Kofi Lomotey, said he opposes acquiring a new live mascot: “I don’t think it’s a very good idea to hold animals in captivity.”
Today, only three college sports teams keep live feline mascots. Now that it’s time for college students to gear up for back-to-school season, here’s the short roster of big cats on campus.
TOM III of the University of Memphis
For more than 35 years, the mascot of the University of Memphis has been a Bengal Tiger named TOM (the acronym for Tigers of Memphis). He attends all Tiger Football home games, and many other university events throughout the year. Today, TOM III travels in style in a custom-designed, climate-controlled trailer, always with police escort.
TOM III as a baby:
When just a cub of 17 pounds, TOM III was donated to the university by the Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue & Educational Center in Rock Springs. Now more than 300 pounds, TOM III resides in a private facility and is cared for by the Tiger Guard, which is licensed and regularly scrutinized by federal regulatory agencies. His presence on campus “presents constant opportunities to educate Tiger fans young and old through the preservation of one of the world’s most recognizable endangered species,” according to the Tigers website.
Mike VI of Louisiana State University
Mike VI — a Bengal/Siberian mix who is sixth in a proud line of mascots representing the “Fighting Tigers” of Louisiana State University — was donated in August 2007 by Great Cats of Idaville, IN, a nonprofit sanctuary and rescue facility for big cats. Mike VI lives in an environment that is 15,000 square feet in size with lush planting, a large live oak tree, a waterfall, and a stream flowing from a rocky backdrop overflowing with plants and trees. Mike’s habitat features state-of-the-art technologies, research, conservation and husbandry programs, as well as educational, interpretive, and recreational activities. Follow Mike on Twitter at @LSUmiketiger.
Leo and Una of the University of Northern Alabama
The mascots of the University of Northern Alabama Lions are 6-year-old African lions Leo III and Una. Permanent residents of the UNA campus, the lion siblings are doubtless glad to have each other for the companionship of their own kind. The duo are housed in a state-of-the-art secure habitat near the main entrance of campus, next door to the president’s home.
Leo III and Una are often seen at public events, such as the homecoming parade and home football games. They welcome guests from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. Here’s a pic the two recently tweeted:
Photos courtesy of Mike IV’s Facebook.