Lions and Tigers and Buffalo Vie for Alum Donors for Live Mascots

·7 min read

At the start of every Colorado football game, a 1,000-plus-pound bison charges around the perimeter of Folsom Field. “Here comes Raaaaaalphie,” a voice bellows through the speakers as the anticipation builds. Despite her name, Ralphie actually is—and always has been—a female bison, for size and temperament reasons. When Ralphie runs, she’s flanked by five handlers, donning black button-downs and cowboy hats. The fastest two run in the front, with the strongest three in the back to slow her down. She can, after all, run up to 35 miles per hour, but typically she tops out around 20 mph during her leisurely gameday lap.

Other handlers join at the stadium corners, even more dash down the final stretch of the sideline to help steer Ralphie into her trailer in the end zone, where she disappears. The 15 or so handlers who spend 20 to 30 hours per week training with Ralphie during football season are considered student athletes by the university, though they aren’t eligible for scholarships and their perks are limited compared to their sport-playing counterparts.

The other athletes involved, the Colorado Buffaloes football team, run out onto the field behind the bison, and the fans go wild. It’s a college-sports spectacle still so revered after more than 50 years that it’s worth the $120,000 average annual cost of keeping the tradition, and Ralphie, alive (and covered by liability insurance). But in Boulder and across the country, the pageantry of live mascots is becoming harder to sustain.

Ralphie lives for free on a secret donor-owned ranch near the Boulder campus. Monetary gifts, from fan donations and a small endowment, cover her other expenses, including feeding, care and travel. Handler gear is also paid for by private donations, while the athletics department covers staffing costs.

“Anything we can do to encourage people to donate, we definitely do [because] monetary donations are key to the success of our program, and we’ve been lucky to have some very generous donors in the past,” said Taylor Stratton, manager of the Ralphie Live mascot program and a former handler herself. Stratton is also busy training a new Ralphie to debut this fall after her 12-season, 1,200-pound predecessor was forced into early retirement for running too fast, Sportico has confirmed.

It may all sound a bit extreme, but Colorado is hardly alone. The Buffs don’t have the only fanbase this invested, literally, in their live animal mascot. Other programs have similarly dedicated donors.

A single individual gifted the University of North Alabama $1.3 million several years ago, for example, to build its lion habitat. All funding for the habitat upkeep and care and feeding of Leo III (and, formerly, his sister, Una, who passed away in 2020) come from donations and sponsorships. On its annual Lion Giving Day last November, the small, 8,000-student school raised around $11,000.

LSU’s live mascot Mike the Tiger has his own share of supporters. Mike resides on the edge of campus, near Tiger Stadium, in a privately funded $3.7 million, 15,000-square-foot habitat. It costs about $12,000 per year to cover his food (10-20 pounds daily of vitamin-enriched, hamburger meat-like food, plus a weekly frozen Oxtail treat), supplies and medical expenses—all supported by donations to the Tiger Athletic Fund. On top of that, both of Mike’s veterinary student caretakers (a twice daily, seven-day-a-week, two-year commitment that includes making “meat art” out of Mike’s food and shaping it into an opponent’s logo on gamedays) are paid.

Colorado State’s ram, named Cam, is cared for by a group of student volunteers, but his living expenses go well into the five figures. The alumni association similarly runs point as the school’s keeper of traditions, of which Cam is “one of our most beloved,” said Amy Jo Miller, director of marketing and communications for alumni relations.

Cam’s overall costs sit at an estimated $20,000 per year, including Ram Handler program expenses, supported in part by private donors. Miller said the association does a few focused pushes throughout the year to raise those funds, and relies on sponsor support—a business opportunity not taken advantage of by many other programs—for most of the rest. Ford, Coca-Cola, Big O Tires and the CSU Bookstore are among the sheep’s corporate backers.

The family that cares for the University of North Carolina’s ram, Rameses, estimates its annual cost of caring for the rare Dorset Horn sheep to be between $12,000 and $15,000 each year, about 10 times the recently introduced $1,500 annual stipend the athletics department pays the family for his appearances at football games.

There are many more. Some are big, like Joy and Lady, two cinnamon-colored sister American black bears that live on campus in the Baylor Bear Habitat, and Tusk V, Arkansas’ Russian boar. Tusk closely resembles the wild razorback hogs the school’s mascot is named after and lives on the family farm of his longtime caretakers, though his expenses are paid for by the Razorback Foundation’s Tusk Fund.

And of course, there’s Bevo, Texas’ famous, if not infamous, longhorn steer, who charged at Uga X, Georgia’s bulldog, on live television in 2019—not the only gameday animal incident that year nor the first time the Longhorn mascot has gotten into trouble. The late Bevo XIV, for example, reportedly charged at Baylor’s players back in 2005. The Texas steer, however, is not property of the school itself, saving them from some serious legal liability. The Silver Spurs Alumni Association provides Bevo with his daily care and handles all associated expenses.

There are, of course, the smaller, less costly sort of live mascots—South Carolina’s gamecock, Sir Big Spur; Yale’s Handsome Dan and Mississippi State’s Bully (both bulldogs, like Uga); and Temple’s owl, Stella, are merely a few.

But the long-term sustainability of the big-animal programs is in question. Animal rights activists have been vocal opponents of the continuation of such programs, particularly those that place the mascots in zoo-like enclosures on campus. Beyond that, the cost can be a problem, especially as universities and athletic departments continue to recover from COVID-19.

Colorado’s athletic department, for example, started footing the bill for Ralphie staff salaries and benefits during the 2021 fiscal year (around $80,000 annually after bringing on the first full-time Ralphie program manager). The current levels of endowment earnings and annual donations will not cover both the operating and salary expenses moving forward. As Stratton, Ralphie’s manager, put it, “Funding is always a concern.”

The death of the University of Memphis’ tiger, Tom III, this past fall marked the end of having a live mascot present at its football games; the school instead sponsored a live Bengal tiger at the nearby Memphis Zoo. Rameses’ owners likewise could see the Tar Heels discontinuing the tradition if their family stopped participating in the ram raising, care and gameday transport (and, of course, Carolina blue horn painting).

“They’re living animals, so you have to attend to them,” said Don Basnight, a fourth-generation Rameses caretaker. Basnight’s family property has been home to UNC mascots for almost 100 years, during which it has transitioned from a working dairy farm to a home for only a handful of animals today.

“Doing that has been a gift from our family to the university for a long time,” he continued. “When we started doing this, it wasn’t such a business. Now it’s big business.”

Changes to the farm and the college football environment have made looking after the mascots a bigger burden over the years. “From an upkeep and a television point of view,” Basnight said, “having a person inside of a costume is a lot simpler.”

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