But some mascots are more than animated, cartoon versions of the essence of a particular team. Some mascots are the real deal.
Consider, for instance, Ralphie V, a buffalo who has been the mascot for the University of Colorado’s Buffaloes for a dozen seasons. The tradition of having a live buffalo lead the team onto the football field is in its 53rd season.
Age has not slowed Ralphie V, and that’s become a problem, the school’s athletic director, Rick George, said.
“With past Ralphies, as they aged, their speed typically decreased,” the university said in a statement. “With Ralphie V, she has been so excited to run, that she was actually running too fast, which created safety concerns for her and her handlers.”
As a result, the university announced that Ralphie V will be retiring to a ranch where she will live with other buffaloes and be replaced with another buffalo, who will be named Ralphie VI.
Ralphie V was not consistently responding to cues from her handlers, the university said, adding that “her temperament was such that she was held back from leading the team out for CU’s last two home games against USC and Stanford.”
In the team’s history, five buffaloes have led the players onto the field 296 times at Folsom Field in Colorado and 355 times in other games. There were only 13 times in which the Colorado Buffaloes were not led onto the field by a buffalo.
While Ralphie V is not the only animal used as a team mascot — the University of Texas has Bevo, a longhorn steer, for instance — the announcement about her retirement did spotlight a debate about the use of animals at sporting events.
“Live animals don’t belong at sporting events, unlike star athletes who are making the choice to be there,” said Ashley Byrne, an associate director with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who is a University of Colorado graduate. “Mascots don’t get to choose anything about the way they live. They spend time in the middle of stadiums with drunk rowdy screaming crowds.”
In a blog post on the PETA website, the organization quotes professional athletes making the case for using costumed humans as mascots.
Ms. Byrne said the use of Ralphie V was not natural. “Not only are you forcing a buffalo into a very stressful situation, you are putting everyone in that stadium within their range in danger,” she said.
Male buffaloes weigh up to 2,000 pounds, and females up to 1,000 pounds. Buffaloes are notoriously antisocial animals, preferring to have little contact with humans.
“You feed them, you give them water, you leave them alone, and they get happy,” said Dorreen Ossenkop, who runs the Adirondack Buffalo Company of North Hudson, about 100 miles north of Albany, with her husband, Steve. At their business, people can see their herd of 28 buffaloes from the safety of a deck.
“They are very territorial and very much don’t like people,” she said, adding that they are fairly calm as long as they are left alone.
“You don’t rile them up,” Ms. Ossenkop said. “They will get very aggressive and very nasty and they’ll attack anything.” She also noted that they are extremely strong and agile.
“The buffalo is one of the few animals that can pivot on any foot,” she said. “The only other animal I have seen that is more agile is a cat.”
The university’s Ralphie live mascot program manager, John Graves, has been close to Ralphie V since she was 6 months old. The program costs more than $60,000 annually and is fully funded by donors, the university said.
“As one of the biggest and fastest Ralphies, her love for running and power was showcased every home game during her career,” Mr. Graves said in a statement. “It’s almost like she knew she was the queen of campus and she loved to show that fact off when she ran onto the field and at her public appearances.”
Ralphie V will make her last appearance on Nov. 23 during the final home game of the season. She will not run but her “career will be celebrated,” the university said.