Team Mike: Student caretakers tend to LSU mascot

When Mike the Tiger rolls into Death Valley on a Saturday night, LSU veterinary students Nicholas Cross and Randee Monceaux are right beside him.

And yes, the two fourth-year vet students agreed, it is a thrill beyond belief.

But Saturday nights in Tiger Stadium come only six or eight times a year, and Cross, 25, and Monceaux, 26, are in it for the long haul.

The two students were chosen by Mike’s veterinarian, David G. Baker, director of the Division of Laboratory Animal Medicine at the Vet School, for a two-year stint as Mike’s caretakers.

So each day — every day — for the past 19 months either Cross or Monceaux, usually both of them, are there for the 6-year-old, 485-pound tiger.

They are the ones who make sure Mike is happy and healthy and ready to greet the more than 100,000 people who visit his habitat each year.

They are there in the morning and back in the evening, all while keeping up with tough, fourth-year classes.

Both students call their duties a privilege, although cleaning up after a tiger eats — and after his other bodily functions that require a snow shovel to remove — might seem like a job to most.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Cross. “I mean, we get to hang out with a tiger every day.”

Their duties include everything from daily inspections to make sure Mike’s habitat stays safe and secure, to keeping his pond chemically right, to feeding him and cleaning up.

➤“There’s no real hands on with this guy,” said Cross.

Any medical needs are taken care of by Baker, although, fortunately, Cross said, Mike hasn’t had any big problems.

It’s a tiger’s life

Born in 2005, Mike VI is a Bengal-Siberian mix who came to LSU in 2007.

He spends his days and nights in a $3-million habitat built with contributions from alumni and fans. The LSU athletic department pays about $18,000 annually for Mike’s food, medicine and supplies, and supplements Baker’s salary about $8,000 for his care of Mike, according to LSU spokesman Herb Vincent.

Like most tigers, Mike sleeps much of the day.

But he perks up when Cross or Monceaux come around.

“He’s playing hide and seek,” Cross said with a laugh when on an early morning visit the tiger came nose to nose through a chain-link fence with his caretaker then ran off to crouch in the bamboo.

And, like good “pet parents,” Monceaux and Cross are always on the lookout for “toys” Mike might like, such as the ball made of old fire hoses that they hung in his habitat.

They’ll sprinkle urine from a pregnant deer — it comes in a bottle — around his yard to make his life interesting.

After lounging his day away, occasionally taking a swim, sniffing out that elusive deer or batting around a giant purple ball, Mike beds down in his multi-room night house.

There the security is extensive — protecting Mike and the student caretakers through a series of locked gates.

“Every time you come here, you have to be fully aware,” said Cross, sliding closed a gate between the east and west cells. “You triple check everything like it’s life or death. Because, well, it is.”

That’s not to say they don’t do a little hanging out in Mike’s crib.

After bringing Mike in one night, Monceaux treated him to one of his favorite scents.

“He likes Tiger balm,” she said, smearing a little of the Vaseline-like ointment on his wire enclosure.

Mike rolled up against the bars, a deep purr rumbling in his throat. And Monceaux couldn’t help but smile.

Then it was back to business as she served up his once-a-day meal — 20 pounds of a commercial blend of horsemeat, beef, soybean meal, vitamins and minerals. About once a week, Mike gets to gnaw on a frozen oxtail.

“That’s his treat,” said Cross. “And it helps clean his teeth.”

In another cell, the caretakers mound a bale a hay where Mike can nap, although tigers are nocturnal creatures and Mike tends to roam around his enclosure, Cross said.

The next morning, either Cross or Monceaux mops up Mike’s leftovers, and, on weekends, usually both of them give the entire house a scrubbing.

Saturday night

But back to those thrilling nights in Tiger Stadium.

When it comes to deciding whether Mike will make the trip, it’s not up to Monceaux and Cross.

“It’s Mike’s call, strictly voluntary,” said Cross. “We usually give him two to three hours to make up his mind. Sometimes he goes right into the trailer; sometimes it’s 15 minutes before we have to leave.”

If Mike is a little reluctant, Cross and Monceaux have a few tricks up their sleeves.

“We’ll put toys and scents in there,” said Cross, “but things like meat don’t really work. Because he doesn’t have to hunt for his food, he really isn’t food motivated.”

And, he emphasized, Mike is never sedated for his trips to the stadium.

“He’s just mellow. That’s his personality,” said Cross, who added he’s never even heard Mike roar.

Getting Mike into his trailer isn’t usually a big deal because he does it often.

On one Sunday, when Monceaux had evening duty of getting Mike in and feeding him, she rolled up the back door that leads from his night house to the trailer.

She then went outside, and, standing next to the trailer, called him like you would the family pooch: “Here Mike. Come on boy.”

Black stripes rippling over sleek muscles, Mike ambled into the trailer, took a quick spin and walked back out.

A few minutes later, he made another quick in and out. Then he strolled in and settled for several minutes before heading inside for the night.

But game day — that’s GAME DAY — is totally different.

And Mike knows, Cross said. “He just knows.”

First, he’s not let out in the mornings.

“If we did, we’d never get him back in and into the trailer,” explained Cross of why you don’t see Mike in his habitat on game days.

The crowds, the activity on campus, the appearance of unfamiliar faces or vehicles — anything might make Mike hesitant about getting into the trailer.

But more often than not, Mike VI is a go. Last season, he missed only two games, so chances are good he’ll be there Saturday when the Tigers take on Northwestern State University.

He’ll be in the parade that marches down the hill. He’ll be in the stadium, electrifying the crowd. He’ll be waiting, just waiting when the visiting team takes the field.

And so will Cross and Monceaux.

“It’s just the best,” said Monceaux.

And when their two years are up next spring, they will miss seeing him every day.

“I wouldn’t call him a pet, because he’s a wild animal,” Cross said. “But you do become very attached. And I’m going to be sad when it ends.”