Not everyone on campus is familiar with the story of Spirit, RIT’s live tiger mascot. The story bears telling, particularly since a milestone was reached this year. Fifty years ago, a group of students, with the blessing of Student Activities Director A. Stephen Walls and RIT President Mark Ellingson, purchased a baby Bengal tiger and brought him to Rochester to serve as a live mascot.
According to the students, the idea “brewed” in the RITskeller late one night in 1963. A “tiger committee” was formed and the group raised funds by selling “stock” for $1 a share to raise $1,000, the sum needed to purchase a tiger. An agent was found to locate a tiger that would live at the Seneca Park Zoo but be allowed to visit campus for special events.
On Oct. 30, 1963, an adorable 3-month-old cub, dubbed Spirit, arrived in Rochester. To prepare for campus visits, the tiger committee received training on handling the 20-pound tiger, and was allowed to transport the tiger to and from campus. In the winter, they turned up the heat to mimic the Bengal tiger’s natural habitat.
From November until spring, Spirit frequently visited campus, attending sporting events, visiting the president, going to the library, and even attending a few parties. After a few months, it became clear that Spirit was growing too large to be handled safely, and Spirit stayed at the zoo permanently, with students visiting to play with him after the zoo was closed.
A few months later, zoo staff noticed Spirit was limping, and he was diagnosed with an incurable genetic defect related to a calcium deficiency. The students learned that the tiger would have to be euthanized to allay any suffering. They paid a final visit to Spirit on Oct. 28, 1964.
In October 2005, five members of the original tiger committee—Dave Page ’66, Jim Black ’64, Denis Kitchen ’65, Roger Kramer ’65 and Francis “Skip” Millor ’65—returned to RIT to talk about their experience with the tiger. Their stories, recorded for history, told of the tiger, but also revealed fascinating details of campus life when RIT was a smaller institution on an urban campus.
Spirit lived a short life for a Bengal tiger, but his memorable, unusual story continues to entertain and captivate. To celebrate Spirit, RIT Archive Collections is planning special events. Details are forthcoming.