It’s a muggy summer evening and fans of Mike VI, LSU’s spirited feline mascot, are gathered around his enclosure.
One man, attempting to grab Mike’s attention, starts making smooching sounds and clapping his hands.
“He’s not a dog,” Keith Roberts observes under his breath. Roberts knows a thing or two about communicating with Mike.
A guard supervisor for LSU Public Safety, the stocky campus employee visits Mike daily, and today the tiger responds to Roberts as he cavorts and plays just beyond the safety of the walls and thick windows of the enclosure.
“I used to come as a kid with my dad to see Mike III. When I got the job at the parking office in December 2008 I immediately wanted to start visiting Mike,” Roberts says.
For nearly a year, Roberts has spent most of his 15-minute breaks at Mike’s cage. He also visits for longer periods in the evening after his shift. “It took him about a week to respond to me,” Roberts says.
Now, the two play regularly. On a typical day, Roberts approaches Mike and even chats with him, asking about his day and what he’s been doing. He paces back and forth along the cage and Mike walks right along with him, making extended eye contact.
“Once I came to visit and I had my sunglasses on and Mike didn’t recognize me. When I took them off, he started to play with me,” he says.
Roberts gets eye-level with Mike, crouching under the plants to “hide.” Mike begins to pace around the area. Then, Roberts pops up, Mike looks at him and runs to another area. This interaction continues for a while until Mike gets distracted. Then, Roberts scratches the stucco surface of the cage’s exterior. “He’s just like a big cat, so hearing the scratching grabs his attention,” he says.
Roberts also makes a grunt to mimic a wild boar. “A friend told me that often a tiger will mock the natural sound of prey and see if they get a response,” says Robert.
The grunt makes Mike look around to spot the mellow, yet jovial playmate.
Mike was hand-raised and has never been in the jungle. According to Sam Winslow, assistant director and general curator at BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo, Mike’s response to the boar grunt is learned. “Just like if a visitor comes to the zoo and rattles his keys, the animals will get excited. That’s because zoo keepers have lots of keys and hearing them means they are about to be fed,” Winslow says. More than likely, when Mike hears the grunt he associates it with Roberts coming to play.
And Roberts loves it.
He talks about Mike like a proud parent, harnessing his excitement just a bit to maintain his own calm demeanor. “I wished I lived in France so I could have a cat this big at home,” he says. “You know, people talk about the splendors and wonders of South Louisiana, and to me this is one.” Roberts prattles on about Mike’s Web site, and how viewing this tiger free is a privilege.
Of course, Mike has other friends too. “I hear there are four or five others who come visit regularly,” says Roberts. Wanda Mitchell, the booth attendant for LSU Public Safety near Mike’s cage, says regular visitors come at different times of the day.
“Mike gets visitors all day, but these men play with him. One rolls on the ground and another waves his hat as he drives off to say bye to Mike,” Mitchell says.
As Roberts says good bye to Mike, he slowly walks back to his car. It’s an old maroon Chevy truck. Slapped on the driver’s side door is an LSU magnet with Mike’s face that pretty much fills the entire space. It’s around 8 p.m. and he has to get home for dinner.
Roberts shouts toward the cage, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”