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Sunday, March 26, 2023

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Shasta celebrates birthday with a growl

Shasta VI, who celebrated his second birthday in the Houston Zoo, had frozen rooster and a blood popsicle as his birthday meal. Fernando Castaldi  |  The Daily Cougar

Shasta VI, who celebrated his second birthday in the Houston Zoo, had frozen rooster and a blood popsicle as his birthday meal. UH President Renu Khator, students, and on-lookers were on hand to celebrate Shasta’s big day.  |  Fernando Castaldi/The Daily Cougar

UH’s cougar mascot, Shasta, celebrated his second birthday Sunday at his home at the Houston Zoo surrounded by music, fanfare and a crowd of UH students, alumni and their families.

The tradition of a live cougar mascot began in 1947 and lasted until interim President George Magner ended it in 1989. In that time, the University had five Shastas.

Through the various Shastas, new traditions were born — from the “Cougar Guard” that took care of her to “Shasta’s Den,” her cage at the southwest corner of Lynn Eusan Park. The Cougar Paw hand sign began as a taunt by UT students because of Shasta I’s missing paw. It was embraced as a symbol of pride and still used today.

The current Shasta VI is not only the first male Shasta, but his formal adoption in 2012 re-started the tradition.

“Someone shot his mom – she had three cubs. Two were recovered quickly and Shasta was kind of left out there. Once they were able to get him out of the wild, he came to (the Houston Zoo). We’ve had him for a while now; he’s really rambunctious and fun,” said Shayla Andreas, a member of the marketing department for the Houston Zoo.

Shasta was adopted in a partnership between the Houston Zoo and the UH Alumni Association. Though he never leaves his enclosure at the Houston Zoo with Haley, the five-year old female cougar that he shares a space with, he remains a vital part of UH.

“There were several cougars that actually lived at UH,” said Houston Zoo Carnivore Supervisor Sara Riger. “When (the Houston Zoo) got this young cat, it was a partnership. We were approaching UH, but they were also coming to us. We thought it would be a really good combination to say, ‘You know what, we’ve got cougars here at the zoo anyway, we got this great habitat for them, we got this great technology – we put on this (Shasta) Cam – why don’t we just have the cougar here?’”

Both Shasta and Haley serve as UH ambassadors, and they guard the class rings before the ceremony and are to appear via webcam at some UH events.

“We lost our older male, Rocky, who used to live here, who was here before him and Haley. We let the Zoo Association know that we were looking for another cougar, and it was just a matter of weeks,” Riger said.

Shasta’s birthday began with a bang with the UH band, cheerleaders and Shasta’s costumed counterpart. Anyone wearing UH apparel received free admission from 9 a.m. to noon, and Houston Zoo staff taught the red-clad crowd huddled around his enclosure about Shasta’s eating habits and how he is trained. Shasta himself celebrated with a “cake” – really a frozen rooster – a blood popsicle and meat cube treats handed to him by zookeepers on a stick through the fence.

Shasta lives in his enclosure year-round, and UH students can see him with free admission if they bring their Cougar Card.

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