The Story of LSU’s Mike I

               Courtesy of Mark Pellegrini

The Louisiana State University (LSU) Tigers have had a live tiger as a mascot since 1936. However, LSU was not the first school to own a large feline as a mascot. Columbia University acquired a real lion in the 1920s to serve as its mascot and Princeton University followed suit with a tiger in the early 1930s. Interestingly, the Columbia lion appears as the roaring lion on the beginning of MGM films. LSU and the University of Memphis are the only schools currently with a live tiger as a mascot. Mike I, the first LSU tiger, came about because of a suggestion from one of the school’s athletic trainers, Mike Chambers.

Chambers made the suggestion publicly and the student body united in its efforts to obtain a real tiger. Chambers found that three tiger cubs had been born in 1935 at the Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas. Once this news reached campus, first-year law student Eddie Laborde led the charge to bring one of the young tigers to the school.

Laborde organized a fundraiser and asked each student to contribute a quarter towards the costs necessary to acquire the tiger. Within an hour, the students had raised about $750. Laborde with the help of football player Ken Kavanaugh made the arrangements for the purchase of the young tiger and its transportation to the LSU campus.

In October, 1936, the student body declared the day of the tiger’s arrival to Baton Rouge a holiday (the actual day could not be verified, but it was October 21 or 23), and the cadet corps turned away professors and students with books trying to enter the campus gates early that morning. The six-foot tiger arrived by train to throngs of adoring students and Chambers immediately placed him in a wheeled cage. Chambers had actual experience handling animals with Ringling Brothers circus and knew how to handle the tiger. Because of Chamber’s circus experience and his popularity with the students, the tiger became evermore known as “Mike.”

With Mike I in his cage, handlers led him in front of a parade down Third Street the wrong way–celebrating up this street the wrong way is how joyous events at the school are commemorated. While Mike rested in his cage at some undocumented place on campus, the students celebrated into the night with dances and bonfires. Several days later, Laborde and others took Mike to Shreveport for the annual game with the University of Arkansas. Along the way, they stopped at various schools to show off Mike and to collect donations for the 19 pounds of meat he ate every day. Mike proved to be a lucky charm as the football Tigers beat Arkansas, 19-7.

One the way back to Baton Rouge, Mike and his handlers took a ferry boat across the Mississippi River and ran into Louisiana Governor Richard W. Leche. Leche asked the handlers where they were going to put the big cat and who was going to care for him. Laborde and an unofficial human mascot named Eddie (a.k.a., Porter Bryant) stated they would care for the cat and were hoping to board him at the zoo in Baton Rouge. Leche decided that while the tiger would be in good hands, he needed an appropriate cage. With the help of President Franklin Roosevelt and a Works Progress Administration grant, a cage worthy of a tiger was built. The cage was officially dedicated on April 13, 1937, and was adjoined to a 12-by-15 foot stone building. In all, Mike had about 600 square feet of living quarters. The stone portion of the cage is part of the current tiger home. As one would imagine, Mike’s abode is a major attraction for campus visitors.

While Mike I became an LSU icon, Laborde’s law school days came to an abrupt end. After a two-week absence from school because of his involvement with Mike I, Laborde was called into the law dean’s office. The dean told Laborde that he had missed too many classes, would be unable to make up the work, and was thereby expelled from the law school. Apparently, school spirit did not carry much weight at the law school!

Mike I passed away on June 28, 1956 of an acute kidney infection. The LSU faithful had him stuffed, and he is now on exhibit on campus in Foster Hall. Within months, Mike II took the helm as the school’s live mascot.  The tradition lives on today.  However, Mike VI passed away in October, 2016 and the university is currently searching for his replacement, Mike VII.

Comments

  1. Elizabeth LaBorde says:

    Hi – I just wanted to say thank you for writing this article! It’s great that the old story is told every now and again! And a great one it is!!

    I’m Elizabeth – Eddie LaBorde’s daughter. I was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta Canada, where my father settled into the oil business many years ago. My twin sister and I attended LSU for a couple of years back in ’82 and ’83 and absolutely LOVED it! We are both still in Calgary as is our mother. 🙂 Our father died in 2003.
    Just thought you might be interested! Again, Thank you!!!
    Elizabeth LaBorde

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