Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A truly wild Wildcat

" TNT," the second live mascot, circa 1922-1923. 1998ua002:2528.

Modern UK fans are used to seeing the Wildcat mascot at sports events: a man in a wildcat suit rallying the crowd, dancing, playing pranks. But the history of the wildcat mascot goes back to 1921, when the wildcat was not a man in a suit, but a live bobcat (Lynx rufus, referred to as a wildcat in Kentucky). The first live mascot, "Tom," was purchased by Dick Webb, an assistant football coach. Tom was lauded in the press and paraded out in his cage during games. The wildcat, a human-shy, mostly nocturnal and solitary mammal native to the state, does not take well to captivity, and Tom died in less than a year. He was replaced by "TNT" the next year, who died in a few months only to be succeeded by "Whiskers." There was a long line of live mascots up until just before World War II, the cats either dying or being released into the wild again.

In 1947, the school newspaper, The Kentucky Kernel, ran an article entitled "Live Wildcat Years Ago, Why Not Now?" The article sparked a flurry of alumni activity to set the plan for a new live mascot in order. A 20 pound female cat was captured from the wild in Whitley county and named "The Kentucky Colonel." The Colonel lasted longer than most -- seven years before being sent to the state wildlife farm, where she died of pneumonia. In the late 1950s, a stuffed wildcat was purchased from a taxidermist and trotted out at games for 10 years. The last live mascot was "Baby" in 1969. Athletic Director Harry Lancaster put an end to Baby's appearances after two games due to a fan's complaints about the cat's treatment.

"Tucky," a stuffed wildcat, at a game circa 1960. 2001ua025_0167.

Happily for wildcats and animal lovers, 1976 saw the beginning of the human-dressed-as-wildcat tradition at the University of Kentucky. Gary Tanner was the original mascot. Today, UK claims "Blue," the male wildcat at the Salato Wildlife Center as its official live mascot. Blue was born and bred in captivity and is never present at events.

"The Kentucky Colonel," live mascot for seven years. Photo originally from Kentucky Kernel, 1947. ukawcp1988_12_35_022.

Much of the information for this post was obtained from an article by Russell Rice in "The Cats' Pause" newsletter from August 27, 1988. Volume 12, number 35.

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