Tiger TOM III, caged at a busy University of Memphis football game. Photo courtesy of Memphis Tigers Facebook page

MEMPHIS, TN — The “Tiger King” zoo has just closed permanently, but a lot needs to be done to fix America’s massive captive tiger problem brought into the spotlight by Netflix’s hit docuseries. In Defense of Animals, supporters have written over 9,000 emails urging the University of Memphis to stop exploiting a tiger as a live mascot over ethical, conservation, and safety concerns.

For over 40 years, the University of Memphis has trucked a live tiger to every football game to function as a team mascot. Over the years, the university has used three tigers, who have all been named TOM (Tigers of Memphis) with I, II, or III after their names. All three TOMs were “presented” as youngsters to the University at massive football games. TOM III now serves as a fixture on Tiger Lane and in the south endzone during all games. Tens of thousands of fans have their pictures taken with him every year.

However, big cats don’t belong at loud, crowded football games with 60,000 jeering fans.

“Forcing wild animals who are very sensitive to their surroundings into crowds of screaming people is stressful and cruel. Taking pictures with TOM III also sends a harmful message and teaches fans that wild animals belong in cages, rather than in their native habitats and that they exist for our entertainment,” said Lisa Levinson, Wild Animals Campaigner for In Defense of Animals. It’s time to leave TOM III at home, instead of carting him around to attend games.”

Legal and ethical concerns surround the use of live animal mascots. Wild animal selfies, which are offered with TOM at the University of Memphis games, are also widely condemned by conservation and animal protection organizations, and rightly banned by Instagram. Even university news outlets acknowledge the welfare concerns of the continued use of live animal mascots.

TOM III’s use as a live mascot is especially troubling given that tigers are an endangered species in need of increased conservation efforts in the wild. Exploiting captive tigers undermines those efforts. Keeping these apex predators in conditions where their needs aren’t met, and putting the public in danger, has prompted Congress to consider the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would ban their private possession in the U.S.

The presence of a live tiger doesn’t intimidate rival teams, but it does put them in real danger should the tiger escape. When the Louisiana State University (LSU) tiger mascot Mike IV escaped he was shot with a tranquilizer gun three times before being recaptured. LSU has wisely made the decision since then to stop carting its tiger mascot to games.

In addition to being extremely stressful and cruel to the tigers who are deprived of space to roam, independence, and everything that wild animals need to thrive, it is very expensive to care for tigers. The first TOM lived in a garage before being housed at the local zoo where he was a “popular attraction” for nearly 20 years. After living in a private home for a few months, the second TOM moved to the $300,000 Tiger House at St. Nick’s Farm and Zoological Park, where he died of cancer at 17 years old. TOM III’s secret, protected enclosure cost $700,000 to build.

“Why  cause undue stress and suffering to TOM III when The University of Memphis has a perfectly capable human mascot Pouncer?” said Marilyn Kroplick M.D., President of In Defense of Animals. “President Rudd, this is your golden opportunity to launch an educational and ecologically sound campaign to keep wild animals in the wild. Please announce your decision to end the use of live animal mascots, and bring Pouncer to future games while leaving TOM III at home.”

Members of the public are encouraged to sign the alert to University of Memphis President M. David Rudd: www.idausa.org/savetom