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Southern University, other colleges replace habitats for live mascots

For more than three decades, the campus of Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., was home to thousands of students, a successful football program and one live jaguar in a cramped pen.

The mascot, Lacumba II, died of old age a few years ago. But the school is planning nicer digs for its next one. Beginning later this year, Southern says it will start building a South American-inspired habitat with miniature Mayan temples, a cascading waterfall and 10,000 square feet of green space. The historically black college hopes that by next summer, its third mascot will be living in the glassed-in enclosure next to the football stadium. Southern says it has raised about one-quarter of the $1.5 million in alumni and business donations it’s seeking to pay for the home.

In recent years, universities and alumni groups have been furiously raising money to shelter their mascots in increasing luxury. Motivated by obsessive collegiate loyalty, rivalries with other schools’ mascots and in some cases criticism from animal-rights groups they’re building complexes with watering holes, native flora and chew toys modeled on rival mascots. Some are rushing to finish habitats in time for the college football season, which starts in a few weeks.

More than two dozen universities, mostly in the football-crazed Big 12 and Southeastern Conference, currently keep live mascots, often parading them before thousands of fans on game day. After the final whistle, many of the animals return to cramped confines. The University of North Alabama in Florence used to keep a solitary lion in a 15-by-20-foot cinder-block den lined with gravel. Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge has kept live mascots since 1936, until recently in a fenced enclosure with a wading pool.

For the past few years, mascots have been trading up. In 2002, the University of North Alabama moved its two African lions to a $1.3 million facility. The three-quarter-acre habitat includes a double-fenced outdoor area with twin waterfalls, a pond and a large straw shade umbrella that resembles an African hut. An indoor night house has skylights to keep the animals on a day-and-night cycle, heat pumps to maintain temperatures in summer and winter, and watering bowls that fill automatically. Caretakers prepare the animals’ food in an adjacent kitchen with stainless-steel freezers.

Two years ago, Baylor University in Waco, Texas, spent $1 million to double the size of a habitat for its two North American black bears, Joy and Lady, to 3,000 square feet. It added three pools one with a waterfall and two linked by a stream and dead trees for the bears to tear apart. Baylor trainers also give the animals plastic chew toys in the shape of longhorns, the mascot at arch-rival University of Texas at Austin.

Also in 2005, the University of Memphis built a $500,000 off-campus facility for its tiger, TOM II (short for “Tigers of Memphis”). The habitat includes two pools and a half keg filled with plastic balls and foam. The tiger makes the 18-mile trip to home football games in a $100,000 trailer an air-conditioned enclosure of steel bars and tempered glass escorted by six police cars.

It goes beyond lions, tigers and bears. Oklahoma State University is building a personalized stall for its American quarter horse mascot, Bullet, as part of a $170 million stadium renovation due to be completed in 2008. One state over, the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville is discussing plans to construct a pen at its stadium so fans can observe its three Russian boars the Razorbacks on game days. “You want to do it in a first-class manner,” says a spokesman.

Lisa Wanthe, an exotic animal specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says that no matter how extravagant the mascots’ new homes, the practice is “inhumane” and fuels the exotic animal trade. “It may look really nice to you and me,” she says. “But that animal is in a tiny, tiny cage from his or her point of view.”

Caretakers say the animals, whose food, maintenance and transportation often cost $10,000 to $40,000 a year, receive top veterinary care and often have extended life spans. “They are a great source of pride,” says Daniel Howard, a vice president at the University of North Alabama, who bottle-fed the lion mascots, UnA and Leo III, in his living room when they were cubs. “Our mascots deserve only the best.”

Schools’ attention to mascot habitats reflect a broader movement. In the last decade, zoos have updated animal areas built in the 1970s and 1980s, to provide more roaming space and stimulus, says Rory Browne, a zoo historian in Boston. Schools may be using the renovations to justify keeping live mascots, he says, but the animals can also be used to help educate the public. “In a sense, these captive animals serve as ambassadors for their cousins in the wild,” he says.

Louisiana State University is currently raising money to build an education center, focusing on conservation of endangered tigers, to complement the $2.9 million habitat for its Bengal tiger, Mike. The 15,000-square-foot outdoor estate opened in August 2005, in time for the season in which LSU finished No. 6 in the Associated Press poll. Located next to the football stadium, the facility boasts an Italianate tower and live oak trees.

After settling into the new digs, 17-year-old Mike died in May from kidney failure and old age. University officials say they have located a potential replacement, a two-year-old tiger they hope will arrive in time for the LSU’s first home football game on Sept. 8. “When he gets on campus, a lot of people are going to be excited,” says Ginger Guttner, spokeswoman for LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, which will care for the tiger. “So many people are obsessed with Mike.”

At Southern University, Judy Williams remembers taking notice of Mike, too. The 1971 graduate says she spent her childhood watching LSU, then a mostly white school, tout its tiger on television. Then, in 1971, Southern got its first jaguar, purchased as a baby from the Baton Rouge Zoo for $450.

Ms. Williams says she viewed Lacumba’s arrival as a point of pride at a time when racial segregation was ending in Louisiana. “It’s like, “Hey, look at us, we have the same thing now,'” she says.

Lacumba II came in 1989. Carey Ash, a fourth-generation Southern University student currently entering his senior year, remembers his mother taking him to see the jaguar when he was 6 years old. Mr. Ash entered Southern University as a freshman in 2004, and the mascot died of kidney failure a few months later. Soon after its death, students approved a $2 fee each semester to buy a new mascot and build a habitat.

“It’s a sign of the times,” says Mr. Ash, now the student-government president. “We have to show that our school is moving toward the future.”

It hasn’t been easy. Costs tripled from the initial estimates after Hurricane Katrina drove up construction expenses. Mayo Brew, assistant to the chancellor for institutional advancement, says Southern University is seeking a major corporate sponsor.

Pulling out architectural renderings in his jaguar-themed office, Mr. Brew points at drawing of wooden logs where the next Lacumba can scratch herself. Last month, he says a university official flew to Costa Maya, Mexico, to photograph native pink and purple flowers. Architects hope to put those, or similar flowers, in the enclosure to add tropical ambience. “Our jaguar will be in good hands,” he says.

– Associated Press

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