Here's a piece of RIT trivia: In the 1960s, RIT had a live Bengal tiger cub as a pet “mascot." You read that right. RIT students in 1963 formed a Tiger Committee to purchase a male tiger cub, harboring him in the Seneca Park Zoo and showcasing him at school activities and sporting events. However, the story of how a few motivated students could acquire a tiger cub is much more extraordinary, convoluted and tragic.
First off, the current Seneca Park Zoo director, Larry Sorel, stressed that modern zoo policy would never allow for an endangered species to be purchased as a pet for a campus.
“The laws governing all that were substantially different, were not as strict or concerned about the welfare or conservation of endangered species,” Sorel said.
Nowadays, animals are kept in simulated natural habitats and are not handled by humans. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits zoos like Seneca Park, is a nonprofit peer evaluation organization that focuses on providing animal welfare and conservation for zoos and aquariums. They provide guidelines for properly socializing and breeding animals solely to sustain population and not to meet the demand for consumer entertainment. Offspring are left with their parents or with their mothers only, as is the case with tiger cubs. This is also why policies of harboring school mascots have been discontinued.
“A tiger that is unnecessarily hand-raised and socialized to be with people might never be able to act appropriately if it were to be reintroduced for breeding,” the general curator for Seneca Park Zoo and RIT professor David Hamilton said. Since modern zoos and aquariums are concerned with sustainability, pet tigers are not part of their mission.
Despite this, nearly 50 years ago, Spirit was indeed RIT’s “pet” tiger, and suffered the consequences. “In the '60s zoos really were captive places and the animals were in less-than-ideal circumstances,” Sorel said.
The following is the chronological assessment of Spirit’s purchase, life, death and legacy as described in correspondence between the Tiger Committee, student government, Seneca Park Zoo and other interested parties. All information is stored on the third floor of the Wallace Center and is up to your own interpretation.
October 1963: The Agreement
Spirit was acquired in 1963 through nothing more legally binding than a verbal agreement. The gist is that RIT raised $1,000 through “tiger stocks” sold at one dollar to students and faculty for a live mascot. That money was paid to a company known as F. J. Zeehandelaar, Inc. After Zeehandelaar relinquished ownership of the tiger to RIT, he was “donated” to the Seneca Zoological Society under the stipulation that he would become RIT’s mascot. The tiger was then transported by American Airlines in exchange for publicity and then transported to Seneca Park Zoo, where he was housed and fed until he was summoned to RIT events to be displayed.
In a letter to Student Activities Center’s Roger Kramer, Zoological Superintendent Louis R. DiSabato wrote:
“As with all our animals, the tiger will be given the best of care at all times and every effort will be made to keep it docile as is possible even though we know growth in tigers is rapid and their temperament extremely unpredictable."
November 1963: Way Over Their Heads
Spirit was kept “docile” by mostly interacting with his “student handlers.” Student handlers were responsible for transporting and handling Spirit while he was off campus. RIT also had agreed to absorb any legal damages or liability claims once the tiger was taken from Seneca Park Zoo property. The Tiger Committee was quickly becoming overwhelmed with finding proper insurance, purchasing new transportation equipment for Spirit’s rapid growth and meeting the demands of requests for Spirit to appear at RIT events.
In a letter to the Student Activities of University of Houston, RIT Director of Student Activities A. Stephen Walls wrote:
“I am writing on behalf of the members of the Tiger Committee at Rochester Institute of Technology. We have recently purchased a baby Bengal tiger to be used as a mascot in the same manner as your cougar, Shasta. We would like to ask several questions concerning problems we have encountered in the cars, training and insurance of our animal.
July 1964: The Foot
Excerpts of letter correspondence between Walls and DiSabato:
“We have people who have visited the zoo to see Spirit, the RIT mascot, and they have come back asking us what is wrong with his foot. In order to be able to answer these people, can you give us an idea of what the problem is and if this is something that will be taken care of in the near future?” Walls wrote.
“We at the zoo along with our veterinarian have been disappointed in the development of his foreleg which has grown rather crook and caused somewhat of a limp ... we might X-ray the leg and establish whether the leg bone has grown crooked or the possibility this is a joint problem,” DiSabato responded.
The zoo first diagnosed Spirit with calcium deficiency and began putting calcium pills in his food, which he dug out immediately. It was later revealed that he had a pelvic constriction, a rare bone deformity that distorts the pelvis causing serious issues. Spirit was put down on Sept. 28, 1964.
June 1967: Nowhere to Hide
Three years after Spirit was put to sleep, the campus was struggling to find a taxidermist to get his pelt cured so they could get his hide displayed in a trophy case.
In a letter from former Tiger Committee member David A. Page to the vice president of Student Personnel Services Dr. James B. Campbell, Page wrote:
“The spirit of the tiger has done much in the past to enrich the tradition of RIT and it can do much more in the future. It is a small but integral part of RIT as an institution and should never be allowed to fade as the school grows."
January 1989: Forgotten
In letter from former RIT President Richard Rose to George Eastman Museum’s Georgia Gosnell, Rose expressed his sentiments about the pelt of "Tony the Tiger."
Spirit stayed in the Eastman Museum until 1991 when RIT archivist Gladys Taylor wrote in a letter that he had "nothing to do with Eastman” and was returned back to the campus. What is left of Spirit now lies in a box in the archives on the silent third floor of Wallace Library.
What happened to Spirit would never have happened today. However, we can still honor our mascot by becoming educated on the impact that destroying natural habitats has on endangered species. There are currently only 3,800 tigers left in the wild, so get active. Volunteer at the Seneca Park. Take an animal conservation class with Hamilton. Donate to Tigers for Tigers, a movement for tiger conservation.
While nothing can bring Spirit back, do not let his memory die in vain.