Live mascots: Storied institution or archaic tradition?

WASHINGTON — Painted faces and bodies. Cryptic hand signals calling plays.
Baseball coaches wearing uniforms. There are many bizarre traditions in
sports that we take for granted due to tradition.

But perhaps none is as bizarre — and, arguably, antiquated — as having live
animal mascots patrolling the sidelines or taking part in ceremonial
activities.

And yet, these activities are largely accepted without question, in all regions
of the country. In Boulder, Colorado, a giant buffalo thunders onto the field
before University of Colorado football games. In Tallahassee, Florida, a man
dressed as a Seminole Indian rides a horse out to midfield and plants a spear
in the turf. In Austin, Texas, the 16th incarnation of the longhorn mascot,
Bevo, abides placidly on the sidelines.

“Animal mascots can represent the bond that people have with animals, as long
as the animals are being cared for humanely,” says ChristieLyn Diller,
director of marketing and communications at the Washington Humane Society.

Despite urban legends to the contrary, Bevo is not in fact sedated prior to public
appearances
, including games, according to his caretakers. Normally,
that’s not an issue. But a predecessor of the Bevo regime was once so
frightened by thunder and lightning that it charged onto the field
and at the opposing sideline during a game against Rice.

According to the account from “The Littlest Longhorn,” reprinted on an
official University of Texas link, “Bevo VI once ‘ran wild at a game against
Rice … and galloped over to the Rice bench with his horns a-swingin’,’ sending
the opposing team’s players ‘flyin’ and scramblin’ like cold water on a hot
griddle.'”

Bevo

Bevo (Getty)

Normally naturally docile, a previous Bevo once broke loose and charged the opposing sideline. (Getty Images/Scott Halleran)

Slightly further north in Texas, Baylor used to bring its two live black bears
to games all the way up to the 2009 season. But in 2010, the USDA ruled that due to the animals’
increased size
— roughly 350 pounds each — it was no longer safe to
bring them into public spaces on a leash.

This past weekend, Seattle Seahawks mascot Taima the Hawk reminded us of the
potential pitfalls of having wild animals present at sporting events. The
Augur Hawk got away
from its handler during pregame ceremonies
before Sunday’s Seahawks-
Giants contest, eventually swooping into the crowd and landing on a fan’s
head. While neither the fan nor the bird were hurt, it wasn’t hard to see how
such a situation could easily slip out of control.

As USA Today recently
discovered
, LSU’s live mascot — Mike the Tiger — hasn’t attended a game
yet this season. Actually Mike VI, he lives in a 15,000-square-foot habitat
across the street from the football stadium in Baton Rouge. But he has yet to
appear at any of LSU’s seven home games this season.

According to Mike’s primary veterinarian, the animal is disinterested in and
has not wanted to get into the cage that traditionally holds the mascot to be paraded around and even parked outside the visitor’s locker room on
game days. Thankfully, that vet has not allowed the cries of fans to persuade
him to push the big cat into a potentially volatile situation.

“Individuals are increasingly considering the well-being of the animal over
the need to make he or she perform,” says Diller. “As with any exhibition
which uses live animals for human entertainment, we want to be sure that the
animal is well treated, well fed, and well adjusted to their environment
without any instances of abuse or neglect — including psychological.”

Jack

Jack (Facebook)

Georgetown’s Jack the Bulldog in a Harry Potter-themed Halloween costume. (Facebook)

There aren’t many local live animal mascots, but here in Washington, Jack the
Bulldog is a well-loved tradition at Georgetown University dating back to
1962. The latest iteration of Jack is fully plugged in to the school’s digital
presence, and has his own Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts, each with
several thousand likes/followers. According to a university website, the
American Kennel Club ranks Jack eighth among the most famous 125 dogs in pop culture.

“The conversation is different when you are considering wild, untamed animals
as compared to domesticated animals, which are more accustomed to humans,”
says Diller. “However, in either case and with any animal, we would have the
same concerns over ensuring they are well taken care of and not in any way a
victim of abuse due to their ‘job.'”

Of course, Jack is a domesticated and trained dog. A previous version of Jack
was a little too skittish in large, public settings, so the university started
again last year with another puppy who seems better suited to the task. But
whether a dog, a tiger or a buffalo, is it all right to ask such animals to
perform in roles like these for our amusement?

“We will always ask, ‘What is the animal’s life like when he or she is not
performing?,'” says Diller. “This can help determine if the animal is being
harmed or coerced to perform an unnatural act, or is otherwise taken care of.
If these factors are met favorably, there is no concern over an animal being a
mascot.”

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