The Tradition of the Obie Tiger Cubs
For over 40 years, Massillon-Washington High School has continued a tradition of leasing a new tiger cub as a mascot every year for their football season. Recently, this tradition has come under scrutiny. Those who support this tradition, like Mandy Pond, the archivist at the Massillon Museum say, “Massillon holds very true to its traditions, that includes parades, that includes football games, the community coming together and Obie has been part of those traditions since the 1970s.” However, the Obie cubs are a symbol of outdated and unethical traditions, which equate to abuse.
In 1938, Massillon Washington High School purchased their first real tiger skin costume for the school at a cost of around $500. According to a news interview, they have had to replace the skin every 10 to 20 years with a new tiger skin. By 2010, however, they retired the body of the traditional tiger skin mascot, replacing it with a mascot costume, but the taxidermy head remains in use. After watching an LSU football game, the idea to bring in a live tiger cub every year for the football season was created. The original plan was to have a tiger that remained in Massillon year after year, but after realizing the cost, the school decided to bring in a new cub every year. The first cub arrived in 1970, and the tradition has continued. Every cub has been named Obie; the most recent Obie was titled Obie XLV. However, there have been more than 45 cubs leased or bought over the years, as multiple cubs have been used in a season for unknown reasons. Since 1991, the cubs have been leased from Stump Hill Farm, a facility with numerous animal welfare violations. The cubs are leased sometime in August, paraded around the school, football games, nursing homes, elementary schools, etc. The cubs are then returned after the football season.
Tiger fans seem to always embrace the cub, who can be seen on the sidelines at every home and away football game. The Massillon Booster Club is responsible for all costs associated with Obie, but many services are funded through donations, including veterinarian services and a van to transport the cub. The Booster Club holds a “Feed Obie” fundraising campaign during one football game each season to help fund the cost of food. The Massillon City School District, however, doesn’t contribute any funding for Obie. “The booster club gets the baby cub about 10 days before the start of football season in late August,” said Kay Hollender, who helps care for the cub. Hollender’s husband, Bob, is member of the three-person Obie Crew that volunteers to care for the cub during the football season. This crew will take turns feeding, cleaning and exercising Obie, whose cage is housed in a two-stall garage by the football field.
The supporters of this long-standing tradition believe the cub is cared for and provided a good home. Three times a day, the cub is fed and walked, and the cage is cleaned daily. “If you live in Massillon, you know there is nothing negative (about Obie),” Kay Hollender said, “this is the 45th Obie, that should tell you something there.” Every year, Obie visits numerous schools, where handlers describe the history of tigers, there near extinction, what they eat and how they can grow to 600 pounds. “He’s well-loved by everyone in the community and I know the trainers really love the Obies that we have had throughout the years and the fans respect him,” said Ben Slagel who grew up just a short distance from the football field where the cub is kept. Many people in Massillon believe the tradition is properly regulated, and should be around for years to come.
Many believe this tradition is not based on humanity, values or sportsmanship. On the field, the cubs are subjected to the large roar of the crowd, and the very loud marching band. A tiger can hear 5 times better than a human. For the duration of the game the tiger cub’s most acute sense is repeatedly traumatized by intense, unfamiliar sounds. The roar of the crowd coupled with the equally loud marching band creates an inescapable torture chamber. As there is no way for the cub to escape, the stress from the intense and prolonged noise has built up to such a high level that the cub often loses control of its bodily functions. The Obie cub is also constantly taken out to meet-and-greet sessions with the public. Sybelle Foxcroft, a wildlife biologist and cat specialist, says, “(This practice) further removes the cub’s ability to behave normally.” Many animal protection organizations have already publicly announced their condemnation for the leasing of the Massillon tiger cub. Karen Minton, of the Humane Society of the United States expressed her concern about the welfare of the cubs after they leave Massillon at the conclusion of the football season; “The problem with Obie is the fact that there’s a new Obie every year. What happens after Obie’s gone and done for the football season and grows up a little bit? Who’s taking care of all the Obie’s through the years?” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Wildcat Sanctuary, and Outreach for Animals of Ohio, have also reached out to the Massillon boosters and requested that this tradition stop.
This is not the first time, however, that Obie has come under attack. New laws regarding exotic animal ownership in Ohio threatened the continuation of Massillon’s tradition. The state developed regulations after Terry Thompson, owner of Muskingum County Exotic Animal Farm in Zanesville, released 56 exotic animals before committing suicide in 2011. Of the 56 released animals, 48 were killed by law enforcement. Massillon’s annual lease of a tiger cub follows the law of supply and demand. There is a constant demand for tiger cubs, but yet a surplus of full-grown tigers. With an, “…estimated 5,000 tigers, the U.S. captive tiger population exceeds the approximately 3,200 tigers in the wild (World Wildlife).” A surplus of adult tigers, leads a situation like the Zanesville Animal Massacre, where the owner became overwhelmed with the amount of large exotic animals he had obtained.
Following the Zanesville Animal Massacre, the Ohio Dangerous Wild Animal Act went into effect. It states that “no person shall possess a dangerous wild animal or … acquire, buy sell trade or transfer possession of ownership of a dangerous wild animal” with the exception of a few specified groups. Originally, it was proposed that Obie would be considered under banned ownership. However, none of the exotic laws would have passed if they had stopped the Obie tradition. Humans have proven they cannot be responsible for exotic animals. The Obie lease is not conservation, it is harmful and has proven to be very deadly. Under this new exotic animal laws, exotic animal sanctuaries and rescue facilities may continue if they register for a permit from the Ohio Director of Agriculture and comply with facility regulations. This law has put Kenny Hetrick, owner of Tiger Ridge Exotics near Toledo, under attack. Hetrick has refused to register for the state permit saying he can’t afford to comply. He currently has four of Massillon’s former Obies, and said he will euthanize the animals before turning them over to the state (Mester). Like the Zanesville Animal Massacre, this shows the severe effects that trying to save the surplus tigers can have on an individual.
While trying to free herself from cage wire at Stump Hill Farm, the most recent cub that served as “Obie” injured her foot and later had her toe amputated. For over 20 years, every Obie cub has been obtained from Stump Hill Farm. There is a lot of concern regarding the whereabouts of the previous Obie cubs. Stump Hill Farm has never provided a report as to where all of the Obie Tiger cubs have disappeared. Stump Hill Farm has a long list of serious Animal Welfare Act violations, including citations for, repeated failure to maintain and provide secure tiger enclosures, unsafe handling of a juvenile lion during public exhibition, repeated failure to provide environmental enrichment and declawing a juvenile tiger, failure to provide veterinary care, failure to provide shelter from inclement weather, filthy and foul-smelling enclosures, failure to provide drinking water, failure to maintain enclosures, improper waste disposal and failure to vaccinate animals or conduct routine parasite exams (Inspection Report). No real animal sanctuary would take an 11-month-old tiger into a classroom full of children. Tigers are known to transmit zoonotic parasites to humans, which is why the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians recommends that the public be prohibited from direct contact with tigers of any age as a public health measure. The Journal of Internal Medicine in 2006 estimated that 50 million people worldwide have been infected with zoonotic diseases since 2000 and as many as 78,000 have died.
A majority of the Massillon football community cannot imagine a life without the Obie tradition, yet many citizens have never been educated on the negative effects on the tiger cub. Like many traditions, people carry it on from year to year without thinking about new discoveries and how times are changing. Massillon is the last High School in Ohio that still uses a live exotic animal as a mascot; every other school has stopped the tradition as society has advanced. The surplus of adult tigers is one that we cannot keep adding to. For each Obie cub in demand, another two to six are born in the same litter. These young tiger cubs are subjected to the lowest standards of ethical care. This ancient and outdated tradition has to stop in order for all the suffering to end.