Photos by Lórien MacEnulty
BY LÓRIEN MACENULTY
Griff seemed euphoric that a member of the Times-Delphic was at his house for an interview. He pranced vivaciously around his house, a mutilated, stuffed elephant between his jaws suffering the expression of the bulldog’s enthusiasm.
Just as he does to the elephant, Griff enthusiastically vessels the Drake University brand. Unlike the elephant, Drake’s brand thrives off Griff’s attention and sponsorship. That’s why the English bulldog of brindle and white coat is such a marketing success.
“As a mascot … [Griff] has done incredible things to personify Drake and what we believe in,” said Natalie Adkins, professor of marketing at Drake.
Griff is an extrovert with a busy schedule. He is a brother to rescue dogs Lottie and Magoo, who was the best friend of the late live mascot, Porterhouse. He’s a therapy dog that visits a special education class at Delaware Elementary every month. He has a Twitter account with over 4,000 followers, gets overwhelmingly excited about meal time and awkwardly ambushes leaves blowing on the ground.
Many of these traits exemplify a concept called anthropomorphization: the process of ascribing human characteristics to non-human entities. Adkins said it is a successful technique employed through live mascot programs at universities. Just like humans, Griff wears shirts and ties, maintains social media accounts and donates to charity. He “speaks,” and people treat him like a celebrity.
Griff is even named after a human. The 1908 football coach John L. Griffith inspired Drake to adopt the bulldog mascot in the first place. Griffith often brought his two English bulldogs—“playful pups whose ancestries were among the ritziest in dogdom,” according to a 1951 letter saved in the Cowles Library Archives—to practices and games.
“Yes, we ascribe human characteristics to him,” Adkins said. “We anthropomorphize all the time. We like to think that he recognizes us. We like to think that when we read the tweets that Erin [Griff’s owner] so craftily puts out, that we could hear the dog as if he’s actually talking.”
Drake is not the only university to take advantage of anthropomorphization. The Butler University bulldog delivers acceptance letters to prospective students and flaunts over 30,800 Twitter followers. The University of Colorado in Boulder owns a bison that runs across the football field before games to intimidate the opposition. Baylor University has three bears.
By contrast, the English bulldog may seem like a fragile choice for a mascot. They’re smaller and less athletic than American bulldogs and suffer a range of breathing problems, the result of an inbred, smashed snout. Griff’s caretaker and live mascot director Erin Bell said that English bulldogs are prone to other hygiene issues. Bell has to clean Griff’s nose rope (the fold above his nose) and tightly-kinked tail to avoid bacterial infection and skin irritation.
Despite their fragility, the bulldog is surprisingly common among university mascots. This begs the question: can we truly consider our wrinkled Griff unique?
Bell finds what Griff brings to Drake is rare.
“Bulldogs are stubborn,” Bell said. “They’re determined. Once [Griff’s] got his mind set on something, it’s impossible to talk him out of it. But at the same time, they’re approachable, they’re lovable, they’re cute in their own unique way. They’re gentle. I mean, we’ve got two human toddlers here in our house, and he’s just perfect with them. They’re a really unique animal.”
The live mascot program at Drake hasn’t always been so easy-going. In 1948, Drake’s own Butch II, a troublemaker of a bulldog, was put down after attacking and hospitalizing a 6-year-old girl near campus. Paula Jo Robinson, as she was called, suffered severe wounds to the right eye, forehad, scalp, right leg and arms but no rabies since Butch II was deemed not rabid. The resulting liability forced Drake to discontinue its live mascot program.
The University hosted an array of bulldogs in the past decade, including Old Spike, New Spike and Porterhouse—another Bell bulldog. Drake recommissioned the live mascot program in 2015 with Griff, a process that the Animal Rescue League of Iowa (ARL) partially facilitated.
“Our stance, with any animal, is that the animal needs to always be the first consideration,” said Stephanie Filer, ARL Manager of Special Gifts & Partnerships. “Their welfare needs to be a consideration and equally, public safety needs to be a consideration. As long as the animal’s needs are being met, that they enjoy the job they are being asked to perform, and that they’re given adequate time to rest … and really that it’s something that they enjoy, then it can be a program that’s great for the dog.”
Filer said that having only one owner offers Griff the stability to perform his mascot duties, which are quite demanding at times. Bell makes sure Griff’s needs are fulfilled before those of the University are even entertained.
“I love how Drake uses his face,” Bell said. “I’m all for sharing him far and wide, and using his face and stuff. But I am also very protective of him, so if I ever felt like that was being infringed upon, I would definitely speak up. His happiness and his health and his well-being is always my priority, even if that disappoints other people.”