On a table in Ginger Guttner’s office are piles of greeting cards, half-deflated “get well soon” balloons and stuffed animals. There are signs decorated by children, with “We love you Mike” outlined in uneven, crayon bubble letters.
Guttner has handled public relations for LSU’s vet school for the past 12 years, managing its website, fielding press calls, giving tours and staying informed about 400 faculty and staff.
“You never know what you will see walking down the hall. We’ve had an albino parrot here and a sea lion in for cataract surgery. And see these,” she says, pulling a pair of purple rain boots out from under her desk. “These are not for the rain.”
Animals and all of their messes are a daily part of Guttner’s life.
But the most popular animal that Guttner handles is LSU’s mascot, Mike VI, an 11-year-old Siberian-Bengal Tiger mix diagnosed with cancer in May.
Guttner has been the voice of Mike since 2010. She speaks for him and as him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, where he has more than 133,000 combined followers.
At first, Ginger admits, she was worried people wouldn’t buy into Mike’s online persona.
“It was hard to figure out how to pretend to be a tiger,” she says. “I felt a little bit like an imposter.”
But she’s since become more comfortable giving Mike his witty online persona. In a recent post, a photo of Mike running is captioned with, “See? I’m not always napping.” The caption for another photo reads, “Do these stripes make me look fat?”
After he was diagnosed with cancer, it was Guttner’s job to let the world know via social media. Mike’s Instagram account has since been a mix of images of him enjoying his habitat—he splashes by a waterfall in a recent image captioned “Summertime means pool time”—and updates about his condition, including images of him at the hospital preparing for radiation therapy.
Though Guttner has always kept Mike’s posts positive, his illness has been hard on her. She has a special bond with the tiger, who chuffs at her when she visits.
“I cried and had that really emotional moment,” she says. “Dealing with Mike’s cancer diagnosis is not what I want to do, because I care deeply for him. But it’s my job.”
Interacting with thousands of Mike’s loyal fans is a big job, but luckily Guttner is extremely outgoing. She attributes her personality to her childhood as a military brat, shuffled among schools in Texas and Alabama before moving to Baton Rouge as a high school senior in 1987. A graduate of Lee High School and LSU, she is married to Bowman Guttner, and they have a 9-year-old daughter, Lena. When Guttner is not working, she is reading or taking karate classes with Lena.
And in March, Guttner had her first big public speaking gig: at TEDxLSU, where she captivated the audience with her 10-minute presentation about Mike’s social media.
Her presentation opened with, “This is the story of why I pretend to be a tiger on the internet.” It was funny, heartfelt and sincere—and showed the importance of allowing people to connect with Mike.
“Social media gives people a chance to talk with him and tell him how they feel,” Guttner says. “Mike doesn’t just belong to the vet school. He belongs to everyone.”