MASSILLON, Ohio - For more than four decades, Massillon Washington High School has energized football fans with a living mascot.
A tiger cub named Obie is cared for by volunteers that the Ohio Department of Agriculture acknowledges work hard to support their school and keep traditions alive.
"I want you to know that we at ODA acknowledge the hours and dedication that you and all members of the Booster Club contribute to ensure the school and it's children are successful," Assistant State Veterinarian Melissa Simmerman wrote, in a letter to the president of the Massillon Washington High School Booster Club.
But to keep from losing its tradition, the Department of Agriculture also wants assurances from the district and from the boosters that they will meet state laws regarding such animals. ODA Spokesperson Erica Hawkins told Fox 8 News the boosters have already provided proof they have adequate insurance.
But in the letter, dated April 28, the state also wants documentation that the district is willing to comply with additional regulations that have become law since 2011.
The Department of Agriculture is requiring an affidavit from an authorized official of Massillon High School attesting that during display and transport, Massillon High School confines the tiger in a cage that does not permit physical contact between the tiger and the public. The ODA also requires the school to agree to care for the tiger as long as the tiger lives and that the tiger resides in a facility that is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums or the Zoological Association of America.
Booster club president Matt Keller was not able to meet in person with Fox 8 News on Tuesday, but did say by phone the long-term requirement might be the biggest challenge and could not provide any assurance if the district will be able to make such a commitment.
Fans of the high school's football program said the cub gets the best care while it is in Massillon.
"Our tigers get treated better than a lot of family members do. She's taken care of properly. She has her own little apartment up in the stadium. They have a crew, the tiger crew, that takes care of it," Cindy McFarren said.
"That tiger is fed and maintained by great people that love him and he's kept well, he's fed better than probably all three of us here," David Berens said.
"It's something that's unique to Massillon. It's something that people enjoy, you know. They have picture taking days with the kids. The kids love that they get to see an animal up close that they may never get to see otherwise," Beverly Denholm said.
In its letter, the Department of Agriculture explains although Massillon has an exemption under the law to continue to have its mascot after so many years, "The importance of complying with the law regarding Massillon Washington High School's possession of a tiger cub is clear."
"We hope you understand that ODA's interest in this matter is one of ensuring the safety of the public regarding dangerous wild animals as well as equal application for the law to all individuals," Simmerman wrote.
"Such compliance with the law will ensure that those traditions survive for future generations," she continued.
A call to Massillon School District administrators on Tuesday was not returned.
The tradition survived a petition drive mounted by a California activist last November that was directed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, calling yearly cub purchase "barbaric."
Many people in Massillon understand the intentions of the Department of Agriculture, but hope the state's requirements will not bring an end to their tradition.