A high school football team that has featured a tiger cub at games for decades might kick off the season without its beloved mascot as boosters try to meet state rules enacted after the bizarre release of dozens of dangerous animals from a suicidal man's farm in 2011.
Boosters typically lease a cub called Obie each year to play the mascot of Massillon's Washington High School Tigers, whose rich football tradition includes helping launch the career of Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals founder Paul Brown.
Ohio began requiring owners to register exotic animals after authorities, out of fear for the public's safety, killed nearly 50 of the animals — including bears, lions and tigers — that were released by their owner. The law includes one limited exemption — for the Massillon school.
The boosters have been asked to prove that the school's tigers will live at an accredited facility when they've outgrown their job as mascots and that the school ensures they'll be cared for throughout their lives. The Ag Department hadn't received such documentation as of Monday, spokeswoman Erica Hawkins said. The team's season starts on Thursday.
Boosters have been trying vigorously to find a way to legally meet requirements, district Superintendent Richard Goodright said. But, he noted last week, "the clock's ticking."
Locals say the tigers are well cared for during their stints as mascot, when they are kept in a cage but in view of spectators. Animal welfare organizations and others have raised safety concerns and questions about how the animals are treated and what happens to them after the football season. A few former Obies were among animals removed this year from an unlicensed Toledo-area sanctuary whose owner said he took in creatures that no one else wanted.
One World Conservation, a nonprofit based in San Antonio, has called members of the school board to urge them to end the tradition, said the group's CEO, Karrie Kern. A noisy football game, she said, is no place for a big cat with sensitive hearing and potentially dangerous instincts.
"I'm from Texas. You know, we're all about football, too, and I get that, but what that cub is experiencing is unbelievable," Kern said.
The booster club has indicated it won't easily give up on the cub, which isn't funded by the school.
"We could have put this to bed and said 'no,' and that would have been the easy route, but we don't want to do that," president Matt Keller told The (Canton) Repository recently. "We want to keep the program going." Keller didn't respond to messages from The Associated Press.
The boosters have significant support from fans. Just across the street from the school, the sportswear shop McG's T's started selling a "Save Our Obie" shirt at a customer's request.
If there's no live tiger, "I'm sure there'd be initial disappointment," said shop owner Mark McGeorge, an alumnus. "How much it would affect, I wouldn't want to guess."