Arizona Daily Wildcat April 15, 1998
The Man Behind the Mask
It's hard to believe the UA's top cat got his start as a beer-drenched dog.
Ben Bartley, a.k.a. Wilbur Wildcat, definitely paid his dues before he donned the famous feline's suit for the first time at the University of Arizona three years ago.
He made his mascot debut as Tucson Greyhound Park's Spot the Mascot.
"I worked 50-cent beer night," Bartley remembered. "They'd throw beer on me, punch me, do anything. It was pretty brutal."
He decided to try out for Wilbur, and, "I was the biggest goofball, so they kept me on."
Since then, Bartley, 23, has gone from dodging drunken racing fans to hobnobbing with celebrities during the more than 300 appearances he has logged as the UA's mascot.
Bartley gave presidential candidate Bob Dole a "noogie" in 1995 while Dole was campaigning at the UA. He taunted actor Kevin Costner and cheered with professional basketball players Sean Elliot and Steve Kerr at last year's Final Four in Indianapolis.
The only thing Bartley receives for wearing the sweaty cat suit are free trips to out-of-town events and a small scholarship. He said, however, that the fun he has is payment enough.
But the job is not all glamour and glory. Bartley is often forced to tactfully drive away: kids who use his tail like a slot machine handle; opposing team's mascots with their own pranks in mind; thieves who want to get their paws on Wilbur's fur; and, of course, the plain-old jerks.
"Most confrontations you try to avoid," Bartley said. "Occasionally, a drunk fan thinks he's funny, but other than that, nothing too exciting."
Wilbur's female counterpart, Wilma, has rescued him once in a while, too.
"A fraternity guy tackled me, and Wilma beat him up," Bartley said. "It was nice to have her around."
Wilbur's own quick moves often keep him safe, like the time a fan at Arizona State University hurled a bottle of vodka at him.
And children, often a mascot's most adoring fans, can instantly change their demeanor to that of a rabid animal.
"Sometimes they yank tails off you, but overall, it's a good experience," Bartley said.
Dan Creedican, one of 11 students at Oregon State University who shares the mascot roles of Benny and Bernice Beaver, said over-anxious kids are his biggest problem, like the time eight of them attacked him at once.
"I was trying not to hurt them but to get away at the same time," Creedican said.
The Beaver's tail poses an added problem. Children often try to use the flat protrusion as a diving board.
"The tail has aluminum strips on it so it sticks up in the air," Creedican said. Combine that with the way it is worn - attached to Creedican's waist with a belt - and you have a recipe for a mascot with a monster of a sore back.
Despite the daily dangers, incidents in which fans or athletes assault mascots are few and far between, said Andrea Talcot, who has been running Oregon State's mascot program for about a year.
In 1995, 5-foot-9-inch, 135-pound Marri Hollen, dressed as Benny Beaver, was clobbered by two different football players at two different games.
UA offensive lineman Frank Middleton Jr. allegedly punched her during a Nov. 4 game at Oregon State. University of California lineman Tarik Glenn did the same thing two weeks earlier after Hollen tapped him with a giant plastic hammer.
Talcot said she was not aware of any Beaver mishaps since the 1995 incidents. Part of the reason is officials keep the animal away from the opposing team, she said.
"We know when the opposing team goes up the ramp and down the ramp, and we're not there," Talcot said.
Wilbur hasn't had any serious run-ins recently, but during the 1994 Final Four in Charlotte, N.C., the Arkansas Razorback tackled him from behind. The feline, played by Devin Elliott, didn't land on his feet and instead ended up in the hospital with a knee injury.
Less-popular mascots also have their share of confrontations, said Karla Waples, national campaign coordinator for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
PETA sends several mascots, including Chris P. Carrot, Charlotte the Chicken, Rocky Raccoon and Rosey the Rat to schools and rallies across the country to promote its vegetarian, anti-fur and anti-vivisection campaigns.
Most of PETA's conflicts are peaceful and philosophical, Waples said.
"Of course there are people who harass any type of protester," she said. "Mascots are an easy target because they don't talk back.
"They try to remain very upbeat and ignore whoever's trying to harass them," Waples said. "We've never had anyone actually try to beat them up. I'm sure they'd be forced to do some kind of self-defense maneuver."
But sometimes the most frightening mascot moments are off the court or the field, like when Bartley's Wilbur Wildcat suit was snatched from a dormitory washing machine in 1996. The theft made all the local newspapers.
The suit was found in a neighboring dorm's lobby a few days later.
"Word spread after that - Wilbur lives in AZ-SO (Arizona-Sonora Residence Hall)," Bartley said.
The theft almost ruined one of the university's most guarded secrets. The identities of the four students who rotate Wilbur and Wilma responsibilities are not disclosed until they're about to graduate.
Bartley will finish his management information systems and entrepreneurship studies and leave the UA in May, but he said there's no more mascot work is in his future.
"You don't understand how much fun you can have until you actually do it," Bartley said. "But it's time to hang up the mascot shoes. I don't think I could ever be anything but Wilbur the Wildcat."
He did offer one plea to fans, though: "Please be nice to mascots. Don't forget there's a person inside the suit."