So you found out you’re an Anteater. You probably haven’t started practicing chants of “Rip ‘Em ‘Eaters” for sideline cheers just yet, and you may have to ignore the snickers for a while when you tell your friends back home your sporting event war cry is a ferocious, “Zot!”
And how about explaining to them that accompanying hand gesture? Haven’t heard of it yet? Try bringing together your thumb, middle and ring fingers to make hind legs and a tail. Have your index and pinky fingers stand tall to make arms ready for a bear hug defense. Your hand may cramp now, but it’ll become second nature by Winter Quarter. It’s your Anteater, and it’s reared and ready to attack.
Prompted to cheer by an enthusiastic and enlarged plush anteater, it’s what UCI fans in the stands motion and call out at games. With this symbol at the helm, being an ‘Eater is a source of pride.
Maybe Anteaters make for the butt of poorly crafted jokes. Still, it’s always the Anteater who has the last laugh with UCI’s stellar educational programs and dedicated sports teams.
But more importantly, it’s better than the pool of other choices we had for a mascot. Try telling the folks at home you’re a UCI Unicorn.
It was 1965 in Orange County and a new public university was added to the roster of California’s celebrated list of institutions. UCI headed by its first chancellor, Daniel Aldrich, was growing fast. Already developing a student body and a voice by means of an entirely self-sufficient newspaper, it seemed the mascot was the only item left.
The mid- to late-1960s was no time for sheer frivolity and while the excitement of a new college campus was abound, issues at hand were not far off. Visions of Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, organizing “love-ins” and LSD testing ran rampant throughout. The mascot eventually chosen would be a true testament to the times.
It started as a practical joke amongst water polo players. Calling themselves anteaters in 1965, a tongue-in-cheek effort at humor, athletes Pat Glasgow and Bob Ernst are credited with spearheading the anteater idea. UCI cheerleaders, getting in on the fun, began shouting, “Give ‘em tongue!” at games.
Unthinkably, the joke caught on and became a viable mascot choice. It was with the marketing prowess of fellow student Schuyler Hadley Bassett III that their campaign collected genuine interest in favor of the anteater. Even “Sports Illustrated” recognized the anteater as the official mascot of UCI less than a month before eventual selection took place.
It persisted like a political campaign. Paid advertisements favoring opposing sides ran weekly. Opposing the anteater supporters were students favoring the typical eagles, roadrunners and seahawks. A larger portion preferred the mythical unicorn while a clearly niche market vied for the brute and oafish golden bison. Eventually, Anteaters, Roadrunners, Unicorns – including the option of “none of these” – graced the ballot. Last minute petitions tried to thwart Anteater supporters.
All the while, nearby businesses like Shakey’s Pizza ran marketing campaigns in the school newspaper depicting an anteater participating in their ads. The newspaper’s Letters to the Editor section became littered with students’ two-cent comments concerning the Anteater.
“…Here is no roaring, screeching beast which gnashes its fangs or slashes with its claws,” writes Cheryl Ann Buschow, a UCI student in 1965, “but a gentle yet deceptively humble creature who has a deadly, insidious tongue.”
Eventually, the Anteater garnered 55.9 percent of the votes with “none of these” falling in second. Already a favorite, students now had more of a reason to shout their Anteater pride from on high. By 1966, a fraternity was established, Zeta Omega Tau, and The Pottery Barn in Laguna Beach had donated a clay anteater to UCI.
While the image of the Anteater was inspired by the comic strip “B.C.” by cartoonist Johnny Hart, the final personified Anteater would come down to two choices. One would be a sort of playboy named “Peter” who was designed by Bassett even before the elections. The other, designed by Scot Swelnam, would resemble the “B.C.” character. He would mimic that anteater onomatopoetic, “Zot!” while wearing a UCI sweater.
It looks as though today we have the best of both worlds. Our officially named Peter the Anteater is seen in UCI memorabilia as Swelnam’s sweater- wearing and “Zot!” swearing Anteater.
Peter the Anteater wasn’t always a muscular and sharply striped beast with a permanently furrowed brow. He’s definitely had a number of varied facelifts since his inception into a two-legged mascot bounding up and down fields and courts, cheering on UCI’s spectrum of athletes.
In the 1980s Peter was a simple, two-toned creature, then a portly anteater with a pockmarked face and the heavily eyeliner laden eyes of a pharaoh. As the 1980s closed in on a decade of big hair and neon everything, Peter had a more cartoonish face with budging eyes and Gonzo’s nose, the least intimidating version seen to date.
Throughout the 1990s, our mascot seemed to be going through an identity crisis. Somewhat true to its anatomical namesake, in 1994 Peter looked more like a zoo escapee doing circus tricks on his hind legs than a mascot. Puberty provoked the awkward stage a year later. His neck shot up, his ears pointed out and he turned a very brick red. More of a giraffe than an anteater, there was obvious room for improvement.
The 1990s closed with Peter resembling an angrier “B.C.” anteater with a stout body, long nose and definite cartoon features. He sported a jersey, nylon shorts and sneakers decorated entirely with UCI’s bright blue and gold. A dramatic change came in 2004 when Peter’s eyes lit up, his smile widened to an electric 1000 watts and he was loveable once again.
Pretend hours at the gym and a mascot seamstress later gave us sinewy Peter of more recent years.
Then there’s Myrmey, housed on the bottom floor of the Student Center near the courtyard in a glass case. Short for the proper taxonomy of the giant anteater, the Myrmecophaga Tridactyla, Myrmey is a stuffed anteater who settled at UCI in the summer of 1988. It is thought that this taxidermy specimen of our school’s mascot is nearly 100 years old. A piece of newspaper found in what used to be the stuffing of the animal’s old base dates back to 1907.
While a creative fiction concerning the history of Myrmey is placed in its glass case, it seems the first real light shed on its origin was in the California leg of his story. Appearing on an episode of a mid-1980s TV sitcom, “Newhart,” Myrmey was eventually gifted to UCI and has since set up permanent shop as resident “real” anteater.
University mascots have long upheld the valued tradition of being an important representation for their schools. College mascots adorn fangs or sharp talons to promote fear in their rivals. Showcasing themselves as the intrepid symbol of perpetual victory, the student body identifies with its school through the mascot. Some mimic an animalistic cry while others employ symbolic hand gestures to relate to the ways of their mascots.
Some are highly revered and more celebrated than others. Some undoubtedly create fodder for taunting rhymes at sporting events. The valor embodied in the University of Southern California’s Traveler the Horse, for example, is seen not only in the crowd’s deafening cheer of “Fight on” as they fan a “V” for victory. It is also in the valiant Tommy Trojan clad in chain mail charging the steed down the field, raising his sword to celebratory cheers.
This is not so much the case for UC Santa Cruz’s Banana Slug which chose its mascot to promote peace rather than formidable rivalry and intense competition. Sammy the Slug is a scholar and has been seen toting a book on Plato. The school promotes an environment where everyone can participate for the love of the game. That doesn’t stop the newly vamped Sammy from having a stern look, broad chin, thick neck and folded arms that reveal rippling biceps.
The Anteater is a creature irrelevant enough for originality and honorable enough for mascot viability. There was fear that UCI might succumb to jeers similar to other unorthodox collegiate mascots, but our Anteater has prevailed. Over the years the war cries continue to sound, “Zot, zot, zot!” throughout the halls of UCI’s historic traditions.
So, maybe you were a Titan or a Wildcat in high school and feel demoted as an Anteater in college. Maybe you were the Shooting Stars in junior high and feel Peter is just repeated ridicule. But if you think about it, the anteater is just a genus or species short of being a real bear, like UCLA’s Bruins,
Regardless, whatever you choose to believe, the truth is, at the end of the day we are the UCI Anteaters: scholars and athletes, steadfast friends, loyal fans and most importantly, not Unicorns.