Ohio school's live tiger mascot would violate law without more proof of exemption

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — A school that uses a live tiger cub as a mascot has been warned it must submit more documentation to continue that tradition without violating Ohio's law on dangerous animals.

The booster club that provides tigers for Massillon Washington High School is among more than a dozen animal owners contacted by the Ohio Department of Agriculture in recent months over compliance concerns, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.

It's not clear if or how that might affect the live-mascot tradition in Massillon, where football passion runs deep: Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals founder Paul Brown got his start as a high school coach in the northeast Ohio city, and each boy born there gets a football in his bassinet.

And, for each football season since 1970, they've brought in a new tiger cub called Obie.

A limited exemption for the tradition — the only one of its kind in Ohio — was included in the law enacted after a suicidal man released dozens of bears, mountain lions and tigers from his farm near Zanesville in 2011. The state isn't trying to end the tradition but has to make sure it continues within the bounds of that law, ODA spokeswoman Erica Hawkins said.

School and booster club officials didn't respond to messages seeking comment, and they haven't replied to the ODA notification sent April 28.

The boosters previously showed they have the required insurance, but the letter says they must provide more proof of meeting exemption requirements, including affidavits indicating that the tiger would live at an accredited facility, that the school would ensure the animal is cared for throughout its life and that it would be transported and displayed in a cage that doesn't allow physical contact between the cub and the public.

The state needed more documentation last year, too, as it began enforcement efforts, but it became a moot point when that tiger stopped being displayed because it grew too big, Hawkins said. ODA's enforcement responsibilities are relatively recent, but it isn't aware of any previous serious problems with the live mascot, she said.

Hawkins noted that the boosters aren't currently violating the law because they haven't brought in a new cub.

Locals say not having one would be a heartbreaker.

"Some people, probably, on the outside would think it's a goofy tradition, but people just love that tiger," school board member Mary Strukel said, noting the cat makes rounds at schools and nursing homes during the week of the rivalry game against Canton McKinley.

Rick Smith, a 50-year-old lifelong Massillon resident, noted that McKinley has a bulldog on the sidelines.

"You can get rid of that," he said, chuckling.

Strukel and Tim Todoran, the longtime manager of a downtown team shop called Howard's Tiger Rags, said they know the mascot's caretakers and are sure each big cat is well cared for during its reign.

Animal rights organizations have protested the tradition, questioning what happens to the tigers. Boosters previously have said they don't keep records verifying where the mascots were born or where they go when a season ends.

ODA wants to know they come from and are returned to an accredited facility to ensure they're taken care of after their months as mascot, Hawkins said.

Three former Obies were among 11 exotic animals removed by the state from an unlicensed animal sanctuary near Toledo in January.

The state said their owner, Kenny Hetrick, ignored warnings that he needed a permit and didn't apply for one until long after the deadline. The department also said his cages and fencing weren't secure enough.

Hetrick, who is fighting to have the animals returned, has said he was caring for creatures that no one else wanted.


Associated Press writers John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio, and Mark Gillispie in Cleveland contributed to this report.

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