LSU building new habitat for Mike the Tiger

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU's 400-pound bengal tiger mascot,
Mike the Tiger, lives at the Baton Rouge Zoo while his future home
is converted into a nearly $3 million habitat complete with a
waterfall, live oaks and an Italianate tower.

The animal's renovated home should be open in time for LSU's
football season opener in September, officials said.

Supported through a private fund-raising campaign, the new
15,000-square-foot environment for the cat will be one of the
largest of its kind in the nation, according to the Tiger Athletic
Foundation, which helped sponsor the drive.

"This will be unlike anything anyone has seen in this
country," said David Baker, the cat's veterinarian.

Later planned additions include a large adjoining plaza with
"kinetic sculptures" honoring LSU sports, an Italianate arcade,
research and husbandry programs, recreational activities and
further aesthetic improvements.

The habitat was the pet project of DeLaine Emmert, wife of the
former chancellor Mark Emmert. The project got a boost from an
energetic fund-raising effort that included donor parties at
football coach Nick Saban's house and the limited-edition sale of
5,000 silk-screen copies of a Mike the Tiger painting by Louisiana
painter George Rodrigue.

The athletic foundation is also offering sponsors a chance to
put their names on a brick for the habitat walkways, for $100
apiece. More money comes from T-shirt sales and proceeds from a
121-page book, "Mike the Tiger: The Roar of LSU." The campaign
has its own Web site at mikethetiger.com.

The project has come a long way since its ignominy in the
Legislature in 2002, when a $2 million request for the habitat
somehow clawed its way into the state's capital outlay budget. It
caused an uproar, and lawmakers quickly extinguished the request
for public money.

The foundation put the project on course without digging into
taxpayers' pockets. The foundation, a booster organization that
promotes school sports programs and supplements pay for coaches, is
in charge of the ongoing $82 million expansion of Tiger Stadium and
an athletic center.

Mike, also known as Mike V, is an integral tradition of live
sporting events at the school. The first Mike the Tiger arrived in
1936 and established the game-time ritual of rolling him onto the
football field sidelines aboard a wheeled cage festooned with
waving cheerleaders. Visiting athletes run past him when they enter
the field from the locker room.

Just before kickoff, Mike roars into a stadium microphone to the
crowd's raucous approval. Mike also appears at basketball games.

The first Mike lived in a 400-square-foot cage, and it wasn't
until Mike IV in 1981 that a new 1,100-square-foot habitat and cage
were placed between the football stadium and the Pete Maravich
Assembly Center. The tiger site has been an attraction for
visitors, especially on game days.

"Mike the Tiger's cage, or habitat, is one of the most visited
sites in all of Baton Rouge," foundation spokesman Herb Vincent
said. "People want to see him taken care of."

So that habitat is being torn down to make way for the new
complex, which will resemble an Audubon Zoo exhibit in which
visitors can see the animal in a natural environment without
looking through cage bars. Visitors will be able to see Mike from
the front of the exhibit and looking down from the Maravich Center.
The tiger's pond, stocked with live fish, will have a window below
the surface for guests to see Mike frolicking underwater. The
Italianate tower will camouflage the water-treatment equipment,
which requires a high vertical structure.