Sydni Dunn

Staff Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

How I Got This Job: David G. Baker

Full 04082014 lsumike

Photo courtesy of Jim Zietz, LSU University Relations.

If you work in or around higher education, you’ve almost certainly come across some colleagues with genuinely cool academic jobs or research ventures. (Or maybe you’re one of those people.) In our How I Got This Job series, we’ll spotlight some of those scholars and tell you how they landed their choice gigs. Have a suggestion about who should be featured next? Reach Sydni Dunn on Twitter (@SydniDunn) or send us an e-mail. Previously in How I Got This Job: An art project earns Allyson Comstock a trip to Antarctica.

David G. Baker has been on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 18 years. But such is the lifestyle when you’re an administrator, a professor, and the primary caretaker of possibly the most prominent figure at Louisiana State University.

In addition to overseeing the School of Veterinary Medicine’s Division of Laboratory Animal Medicine, teaching in 10 courses, and researching, Baker is the main veterinarian for LSU’s live mascot, Mike VI, a 450-pound Bengal-Siberian Tiger.

So how do you find yourself in such a unique role? We caught up with Baker to find out. Here’s his story.

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When I came to LSU’s School of Veterinary Medicine in 1995 as the chief clinical veterinarian in the Division of Laboratory Animal Medicine, I didn’t know LSU had a live tiger on campus. What’s more, I didn’t even know they were called the Tigers.

So when I first arrived on campus and Dr. W. Sheldon Bivin, the former division director, said, “Let me show you my cat,” I was confused. I’m a veterinarian, I thought. It’s not like I haven’t seen a cat.

And that’s when I met Mike V, one of six live tigers to reside on the university’s campus within the last 70 years. This particular tiger, who was six at the time, lived on campus for 17 years, reigning over a football national championship, five baseball national championships, and 23 track-and-field championships.

Little did I know then: He would soon be my responsibility. And so would his successor, Mike VI.

Eleven months after I was introduced to Mike V, Dr. Bivin retired as the division director and attending veterinarian for LSU, and I stepped into the role. It was my job to ensure all animals owned by the university and used in teaching and research were cared for humanely. With that came a slew of other responsibilities: chief laboratory animal veterinarian for the LSU System’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center; consulting veterinarian for the East Baton Rouge Parish Animal Control Center; director of the LSU Vet School’s Raptor and Wildlife Rehabilitation Unit; and finally, veterinarian for Mike the Tiger.

I have since shed some of those positions. Now my roles include division director, attending veterinarian for LSU, and primary veterinarian for Mike the Tiger. I’m also currently teaching in 10 courses and researching how the cost of caring for laboratory animals affects the number of animals faculty use.

Juggling these jobs provides an ever-changing schedule and a fluctuating workload. To give you an idea: After I wrap up my current elective course—which meets for two hours a day for 10 days—I will have been in the classroom everyday for six weeks. For a high school teacher, that seems like nothing, but for someone at this level, it’s a lot.

But that’s what I came here to do. For several years after I arrived at LSU, I would walk down the hall in awe, not because I was working with a live mascot, but because I had achieved my goal of becoming a professor. It’s something I wanted to do all my life, and as a result, I’m filled with gratitude to God for blessing me.

Caring for the tiger, as you now know, was a package deal. My speciality wasn’t exotic animals, and I had never worked with tigers before Mike, but it makes sense for the laboratory animal-medicine department to oversee his care.

While we have not and will not use Mike for research, we confront many of the same issues with him as we do with our laboratory animals. For example, some research animals, especially highly-valuable ones like primates and dogs, can live up to 20 years; it’s the same with the tiger. Most of what we tackle concerns long-term and preventive health care. So there’s nothing particularly special about me; any veterinarian could do this job.

Perhaps the most important characteristic you need for this job is the ability to say no. Mike is a high-profile animal, and naturally many people make requests of him: Can he come to my event? Can you release him on the football field so we can get a photo? Can my wife get into the trailer with him and ride around the stadium? Can Mike sit next to a visiting artist as he recites poetry at LSU’s Swine Palace theatre? (Yes, these are all past inquiries.)

I visit Mike at least two to three times a week, but if something is wrong, I am there more frequently. I also supervise all of his routine care, which is performed by two students who see him everyday.

At the beginning of even-numbered years, I select two second-year veterinary students as a pair to help care for Mike the Tiger on a daily basis for two years. They go to the tiger’s habitat every morning to check on him and to survey his enclosure. Afterward, they release the tiger into the habitat’s yard for the day, where he is free to play with his Boomer Ball, swim in his pool, or interact with adoring passersby. At night, they return to feed him a 25-pound meal of vitamin-infused meat and vegetables and put him inside his night house.

The students are required to know where their teammate is at all times during those two years. They also need to know where I am, as we are all on call 24/7, 365 days a year. Every time my phone rings at an odd hour, I think about the tiger.

I’m often asked about the best aspect of my job, and I always say it’s mentoring the students. The responsibility of caring for such a high-profile animal changes them. It makes them better professionals. To be involved in that and in shaping them—I like that a lot.

And of course, I like working with the tigers, too.

Mike V was an excellent Tiger, but he was very different than Mike VI. Mike VI, who has been at LSU since 2007, is interactive and very affectionate. He had such a strong bond with the first team of students he encountered that when they graduated, he became so depressed he lost 70 pounds. Now, when they come back to campus to visit, they make a special sound, and he immediately knows it’s them.

And just as he is fond of us, we are fond of him. We take his care very seriously. We are protective of him, and that sense of ownership resonates with the whole LSU community. People love that tiger.

What has caring for Mike the Tiger taught Dr. Baker? Here are a few lessons:

  • Know how to say “no.” Your job isn’t to please everyone; it’s to make the animal’s well-being your top priority. If it’s not good for the animal, don’t do it.
  • Stay organized. Your professional career and an animal’s health depends on your ability to stay on top of things.
  • Trust your team and don’t micromanage. There’s a lot of pressure in caring for a high-profile animal like Mike the Tiger. You have select employees who you trust with authority.
  • Share the limelight. Sure, you provide the animal’s primary care, but the animal does not belong to you. It belongs to an entire community.

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