The Team Behind the Tiger
He may well be the most famous man in Louisiana.
He has almost 2,000 followers on his Facebook and Twitter pages combined. He gets visitors every single day, and when he moved into his new home, hundreds of people turned out just to watch.
Children dress up like him on Halloween.
Ninety minutes before LSU and Ole Miss kicked off in their 2010 clash in Tiger Stadium, Rebels head coach Houston Nutt made a point of taking a few minutes out of his pregame schedule to come and see him.
He may be the most famous man in Louisiana—yet the people he spends the most time with may be among the most anonymous in the Pelican State.
LSU's Bengal-Siberian mix tiger, Mike VI, is a veritable icon, one of the most instantly-recognizable mascots in all of college athletics. Yet as much as people know him, few know much about the people who take care of him on a daily basis.
For Dr. David Baker, director of LSU's Division of Laboratory Animal Medicine and personal veterinarian for Mike VI, and veterinary medical students Randee Monceaux and Nick Cross, Mike the Tiger's student caretakers, Mike VI is more than just the LSU mascot: he is a 450 pound, five-year-old tiger that needs to be cared for 365 days a year.
And caring for an apex predator, while simultaneously thrilling and rewarding, is not an easy job.
Early each morning, either Monceaux or Cross arrive at Mike VI's enclosure to begin work, where Mike greets Monceaux and Cross by chuffing at them.
"Nick and I see him every day," said Monceaux. "He chuffs at us, and we'll chuff back. When he's chuffing it means he's happy you're around. He likes us. When we chuff back we're confirming we're happy to be around him too."
Once the daily greeting is out of the way—it can also involve a scratch behind the ear for the tiger who is only too happy to approach the bars of the cage inside his night house if it means he'll get some extra affection from his caretakers—the work begins.
Monceaux and Cross perform a visual inspection of Mike VI to make sure he isn't showing signs of illness or injury; practice loading him in his travel trailer; walk through his enclosure to make sure everything is secure and no potentially harmful trash or debris has made its way in overnight; clean the filter for his pool and make sure the water is chemically inert so it does not pose a health risk; let him out into the enclosure where he can swim, play with his Boomer Ball and nap under the adoring eye of curious onlookers; and clean out the interior of his night house.
And all of that takes place before they head over to the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine for a full day of classes.
In the evening, Monceaux and Cross return to the enclosure to let him back into the night house, where they perform another visual inspection, and feed him his daily 25-pound meal of meat and vegetables that has been fortified with vitamins and minerals to ensure it meets his specific dietary needs.
Assuming, of course, he feels like coming inside to eat.
"He's unpredictable because he's a cat," said Dr. Baker. "Life is on his terms. When the weather is really nice he tends to stay out more."
For an animal that doesn't eat every day in the wild, missing an occasional meal is not a problem, though his nights spent sleeping under the stars do mean extra phone calls have to be made and more people have to be involved with the "around the clock" aspect of his care.
"[If he doesn't feel like coming inside at night] I and the LSU police are notified, and they make extra patrols during the evening," said Baker. "Typically, the next day he's a little more hungry so he's more interested in coming in."
The unpredictability that is inevitable when dealing with a wild animal can sometimes result in Mike VI simply not feeling in the mood to enter his travel trailer on the day of an LSU football game, even if he has been more than happy to enter the trailer on the mornings leading up to the game. While his caretakers are attempting to load him into his trailer—a process that simply involves opening the door to the trailer and then waiting for Mike VI to decide if he wants to get in or not—fans are kept away from the loading area of his enclosure in an attempt to minimize the distractions.
The game days he decides he doesn't feel like getting in his trailer are a disappointment to the fans—and to his caretakers, who enjoy Mike VI's game day role as much as the fans do—but the days he does feel in the mood for a trip to Tiger Stadium become an event unto themselves.
After he has entered his trailer, which he eventually did on the morning of the Ole Miss game with his breakfast snack of meat still in his mouth, either Monceaux or Cross drive the sponsor-adorned Chevrolet Silverado, while the other walks alongside and assorted friends and family members sit in the bed.
Mike's Myths Busted
Q: Will luring him into his trailer make him more likely to get in on game day?
A: We don't put food in there because tigers don't really respond to food treats like a dog would. They're intelligent so if they don't want to do something, food won't make them do it. He does everything on his own terms. We tried the food, and it doesn't work, it just makes him more anxious. – Randee Monceaux
Q: Is he sedated while in his travel trailer?
A: That has never happened, and never will happen. If we need to do that, we shouldn't be taking him. People can't understand how any animal can be so confident and not even flinch when the band starts playing, so they assume he's drugged. Well, he's not. – Dr. David Baker
Q: Is Mike poked with a stick to make him roar?
A: That doesn't happen. Whether it happened in the past I don't know, I wasn't here. All I can say is it hasn't happened in the 15 years I've been here. – Dr. David Baker
The truck, led by a police escort, heads up to the top of the hill on Cypress Drive before stopping and waiting for the Golden Band from Tigerland. While stopped, fans crowd around the trailer and take photos, while calling out Mike VI's name in an attempt to get his attention.
When the band arrives, Monceaux, Cross and Mike VI lead them down Fieldhouse Drive and down North Stadium Drive before darting behind the east side of Tiger Stadium and entering through the visiting team's entrance while the parading musicians entertain the throng of fans outside the stadium.
It is there, finally, that Monceaux and Cross can take a break and relax, while various assorted dignitaries ranging from LSU Chancellor Michael Martin to visiting cheerleaders and team managers—and, yes, even the occasional visiting head coach—approach the travel trailer to admire and have their photo taken with the (occasionally napping but usually awake and contentedly observing the proceedings) athletic icon.
After making his traditional lap around the field, after the visiting team has run out of its tunnel and after the national anthem has been performed by the Golden Band from Tigerland, Mike VI is led out of Tiger Stadium and back to his enclosure, where he is able to dine on a special game day snack of frozen oxtail.
For his caretakers, this means the week is finally over.
Until first thing the next day, that is, when they are back in his night house being greeted by a chuffing tiger who is ready to head outside and spend another day swimming, playing and napping.
While the role of caretaker is a popular one within the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine—one in every seven students applied for the current rotation—it is one that is only filled after careful deliberation by Dr. Baker. Students have to apply in pairs for the two-year position, and only once has Dr. Baker seen the need to break up teams of applicants and create one "super pair"—this year, when he paired Monceaux and Cross.
"It begins with an application, and if your application goes through then you're selected for an interview," said Cross. "You apply in teams, and this year, Dr. Baker felt like Randee and I were the best candidates for the job, so he put us together. We had to train for four months under the supervision of the previous caretakers."
"They have to be able to observe and recognize changes in the tiger, very subtle changes," said Dr. Baker. "They have to be available 24 hours a day in case something comes up, and they have to be able to work with the public and do so in a way that honors themselves and the whole program, the veterinary school and LSU.
"They have to have a lot of character qualities that support rather than detract from the program because errors are not an option when you're dealing with an apex predator on a university campus."
The rewards for the two students fortunate enough to be chosen are immense.
Spend an Evening With Mike VI!
You can capture two "Golden Tickets" for a special evening with Mike VI! If your bid is one of the top 75 bids received online before Saturday, Dec. 18, you and a guest can attend this "by invitation only" event that includes a behind-the-scenes guided tour of Mike VI's habitat and private enclosure. For more information, go to http://www.vetmed.lsu.edu, and click on "Spend an Evening with Mike VI."
"It's an unbelievable experience, a once in a lifetime opportunity," said Cross, who grew up in Metairie bleeding purple and gold as an LSU fan. "I never thought in my wildest dreams I'd one day be down on the field taking care of Mike the Tiger. I remember sitting in the student section during my undergraduate years, and I never thought that one day I'd be Mike's caretaker."
"I love being involved with him every day," Monceaux said. "He makes me laugh every time I see him. I love being involved with celebrating Mike the Tiger and celebrating LSU."
The students, however, are not the only people benefitting from the position. For Dr. Baker, who moved to Baton Rouge from California 15 years ago in part because he wanted to mentor students, his interaction with them is equally fulfilling.
"[Former caretakers] do keep in touch, we do have a very collegial relationship," said Dr. Baker. "It's very much a mentoring relationship. Sometimes people ask me what I enjoy the most about working with the tiger, and there's no question that it's working with the students because I value the opportunity to have some input into their development as professionals."