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Live Animal Mascots: A College Football Tradition Worthy of Preserving

As a Georgia fan, I cannot help but love live mascots.

Among the elements of pageantry, tradition, and downright quirky local color that make college football so much more rich and enjoyable than its prefabricated N.F.L. counterpart (which is so modular that teams can be packed up in boxes and shipped to new cities) is the practice of keeping a live animal mascot.

So fond am I of this curious practice that I believe it is better for a team to have a live mascot that makes no sense than to have no mascot at all.

Consider the case of the University of Tennessee. The school's team nickname (Volunteers) lends itself to the sideline presence of a guy in a Davy Crockett costume who looks like the West Virginia Mountaineer's less virile understudy, yet, defying all logic or explanation, the Big Orange also trots out Smokey, the blue-tick hound.

Smokey's status as Tennessee's mascot doesn't make a lick of sense, but I respect the Vols for working a live mascot into their repertoire.

Tennessee gets points for Smokey. That dolt in the dog suit, though, has to go.

Contrast that with Fresno State University. A couple or three years ago, my niece, Kate, walked into the living room and saw my brother-in-law, Travis, watching a Fresno State football game. When she heard the West Coast F.S.U.'s team referred to as "the Bulldogs," Kate was incredulous; they weren't the Bulldogs . . . we were the Bulldogs!

Trav explained to her that sometimes two different teams had the same mascot. Kate mulled this over for a moment, then asked, "What's their bulldog's name?" Georgia, after all, has Uga. What did Fresno State have?

Trav thought about this and replied, "I don't think Fresno State has a bulldog."

With the bored insouciance only a girl in her early teens is able to muster, Kate declared: "Lame!" and left the room, never again to give the Fresno State Bulldogs another thought.

Technically, I don't think Pat Hill qualifies as a live animal mascot, but I suppose Fresno State fans could make that argument. . . .

To my way of thinking, live animal mascots should fall into one of two categories. These are they:

  • Mascots who are immobile and indifferent to the point of possessing a regal lethargy reminiscent of Henry VIII; or,
  • Mascots who are insanely dangerous to a degree that would send attorneys and risk managers into fits of apoplexy over the potential for liability yet who nevertheless are kept on the sidelines in blithe defiance of good sense.
The best mascots fall into both categories. Think Bevo. Think Ralphie. Think Uga when straining his leash in an effort to get after the opposing player or mascot who is threatening Georgia's turf.
Obligatory photograph of Uga from the 1996 Auburn game. (I hate Auburn.)

This brings us to L.S.U.'s Mike.

Mike V recently died, passing on to his eternal reward in the night at the ripe old age (by tiger standards) of 17. Into the breach rushed the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who predictably urged Louisiana State not to acquire a replacement mascot.

P.E.T.A.'s rationale was not, as one might have expected, that the animal would pose a danger to people, but, in a classic example of misplaced priorities, that the people would do harm to the animal:

"Big cats in captivity are denied everything that is natural and important to them, such as the opportunity to run, climb, hunt, establish their territory, and choose their mates," Lisa Wathne, of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says in a letter to school officials.

Fortunately, school officials and Tiger fans aren't buying this line of mumbo-jumbo. For the record, the more sensible position upon the subject is that taken by Piscine Molitor Patel in Yann Martel's Life of Pi:
Well-meaning but misinformed people think animals in the wild are "happy" because they are "free". These people usually have a large, handsome predator in mind, a lion or a cheetah (the life of a gnu or of an aardvark is rarely exalted). They imagine this wild animal roaming about the savannah on digestive walks after eating a prey that accepted its lot piously, or going for callisthenic runs to stay slim after overindulging. They imagine this animal overseeing its offspring proudly and tenderly, the whole family watching the setting of the sun from the limbs of trees with sighs of pleasure. The life of the wild animal is simple, noble and meaningful, they imagine. Then it is captured by wicked men and thrown into tiny jails. Its "happiness" is dashed. It yearns mightily for "freedom" and does all it can to escape. Being denied its "freedom" for too long, the animal becomes a shadow of itself, its spirit broken. So some people imagine.

This is not the way it is.

Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low and where territory must constantly be defended and parasites forever endured. What is the meaning of freedom in such a context? Animals in the wild are, in practice, free neither in space nor in time, nor in their personal relations. . . .

An animal inhabits its space, whether in a zoo or in the wild, in the same way chess pieces move about a chessboard---significantly. There is no more happenstance, no more "freedom", involved in the whereabouts of a lizard or a bear or a deer than in the location of a knight on a chessboard. Both speak of pattern and purpose. In the wild, animals stick to the same paths for the same pressing reasons, season after season. . . .

Don't we say, "There's no place like home"? That's certainly what animals feel. Animals are territorial. That is the key to their minds. Only a familiar territory will allow them to fulfill the two relentless imperatives of the wild: the avoidance of enemies and the getting of food and water. A biologically sound zoo enclosure---whether cage, pit, moated island, corral, terrarium, aviary or aquarium---is just another territory, peculiar only in its size and in its proximity to human territory. That it is so much smaller than what it would be in nature stands to reason. Territories in the wild are large not as a matter of taste but of necessity. In a zoo, we do for animals what we have done for ourselves with houses: we bring together in a small space what in the wild is spread out. . . .

A house is a compressed territory where our basic needs can be fulfilled close by and safely. A sound zoo enclosure is the equivalent for an animal. . . . Finding within it all the places it needs---a lookout, a place for resting, for eating and drinking, for bathing, for grooming, etc.---and finding that there is no need to go hunting, food appearing six days a week, an animal will take possession of its zoo space in the same way it would lay claim to a new space in the wild, exploring it and marking it out in the normal ways of its species, with sprays of urine perhaps. Once this moving-in ritual is done and the animal has settled, it will not feel like a nervous tenant, and even less like a prisoner, but rather like a landholder, and it will behave in the same way within its enclosure as it would in its territory in the wild, including defending it tooth and nail should it be invaded. Such an enclosure is subjectively neither better nor worse for an animal than its condition in the wild; so long as it fulfills the animal's needs, a territory, natural or constructed, simply is, without judgment, a given. . . .

One might even argue that if an animal could choose with intelligence, it would opt for living in a zoo, since the major difference between a zoo and the wild is the absence of parasites and enemies and the abundance of food in the first, and their respective abundance and scarcity in the second. Think about it yourself. Would you rather be put up at the Ritz with free room service and unlimited access to a doctor or be homeless without a soul to care for you?

Although I always am concerned about the ability of other schools to give their mascots proper care, the long life of Mike V suggests that Mike VI will be getting a pretty sweet deal in Baton Rouge. The P.E.T.A. folks, like the N.C.A.A. know-it-alls out to rid the world of Indian mascots, need to get a grip, join the rest of us here in reality, and focus on something that matters.

I will look forward to the presence of Mike VI the next time Georgia travels to take on the Bayou Bengals in Death Valley.

Go 'Dawgs!