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Wisconsin has its Badger, Minnesota has its Golden Gopher, and Michigan athletes are Wolverines.

Why not a river otter for Illinois?

"Alma Otter," that is, a brown furry guy with an Illini shirt and a name playing on that of the iconic University of Illinois sculpture.

First posted as a Facebook meme during last fall's Illini volleyball tournament run, Alma Otter inspired an online petition and its own Facebook page and is now the subject of a referendum question in next week's student elections.

Even as Chancellor Robert Jones awaits recommendations from a commission on whether to move forward with a new mascot at all, the Illinois Student Government voted this week to place a nonbinding question on the ballot asking if Alma Otter should be the official university symbol.

Meanwhile, UI business student Mike Skibski hopes to speak to UI trustees later this month about his idea, which has also drawn attention: Champ the Fighting Illini, a World War I soldier known as a doughboy.

Backers of both say it's time for the campus to move on after 12 years without a symbol.

"In 2007, the university stopped using the Chief as an official mascot. It's 2019 now. It's been over a decade and there's still no real movement toward anything, an actual symbol, a mascot of the university," said student government Vice President Alice Zheng, one of the co-authors of the Alma Otter resolution.

"This has affected school spirit at football games. There's not something for us to rally behind," she said. "Every other school has a mascot they can rally behind that's inclusive for everybody, and we don't."

The chancellor asked the Commission on Native Imagery to recommend ways the campus can highlight the UI's native heritage and coalesce around new traditions, though he hasn't committed to a mascot.

Campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said Friday the panel is still meeting regularly and on track to come back with a report before the end of the semester.

Did she want to comment on either mascot suggestion? "No."

Zheng said the students respect the chancellor's efforts, but she also sees a "yes" vote as a message that it's time for a mascot, "whether it's Alma Otter or something else."

Skibski agreed, adding that the ultimate decision will be up to campus administrators or UI trustees.

"If the river otter does get a majority yes vote, that'll show the board that we want something to change," he said.

Once an endangered species, river otters were reintroduced in Illinois in 1997 and have flourished since, now found in nearly every county in the state, Zheng said.

The otter's comeback "mirrors the resilience and common appeal of the university," the resolution says, and it aligns well with other Big Ten mascots such as Bucky Badger and Goldy the Gopher.

Otters have also become somewhat of a nuisance to fishermen and homeowners with ponds on their property. River otters have been known to clear entire ponds of fish, leaving a pile of fish skeletons on the shore. But Zheng said gophers aren't exactly beloved by homeowners, either.

The idea has won both support and ridicule on social media.

"How embarrassing that this is even up for a vote among students," tweeted UI alumnus and former Chicago sportswiter Dave Wischnowsky.

"Incredibly cool and adorable and yet also vicious and worthy of respect — a perfect mascot!" wrote Annalisa Switzer.

Students for Chief Illiniwek urged a "no" vote on Facebook, "The adoption of a mascot greatly diminishes the honor and dignity of our University, and is a slap in the face to the Indigenous peoples whom the ISG attempt to replace and move past!"

But student government President Walter Lindwall thinks it would be fun — and "way better" than Sassy the Squirrel, another popular campus meme.

"Creating new traditions is what the chancellor is intending," Lindwall said. "This is one of the things that's been a groundswell."

The Alma Otter was introduced on an unofficial UI Facebook page, actually a photo of a sea otter with its arms raised up. It got thousands of likes and "kind of went viral," Lindwall said. It was then posted on Reddit, and someone created a change.org petition that has gathered 565 signatures.

Skibski likes it but thinks Champ would be a "perfect fit" as a symbol, given its historical ties to the Fighting Illini and Memorial Stadium, which honored UI alumni who were killed in World War I. The name "Champ" can be short for Champaign and is "empowering" and a smooth transition from "Chief," he said.

He posted an early rendition on Reddit, and after getting positive feedback, he decided to develop the idea further. He posted an updated version a few weeks ago.

"It had so much positive feedback," along with some constructive criticism, he said.

He's already altered the design in response, replacing the rifle with an Illini flag, "just so there's nothing controversial about the gun." He's continuing to tweak it, working with an artist, and a costume is in the works.

Lindwall said he's glad students are coming up with new ideas, though he suspects some students may not like the idea of a soldier. Zheng said it may be more appropriate for a military school such as West Point or the Air Force Academy.

"It's important to respect veterans and people who fought and died for our country. I don't know if that is necessarily a mascot for our university," Zheng said.

Skibski said he sees Champ as a historical figure more than a military figure: "We're called the Fighting Illini. I think we should stick with the Fighting Illini and put a face on it."

Skibski could see using both ideas, as some have suggested — Champ as a symbol and Alma Otter as a fun mascot or the stuffed animal to buy at the bookstore.

"I think an otter would be perfect for that," he said.

He's heard from people who don't want a mascot or who want to see Chief Illiniwek return, but also from Chief supporters who recognize that the university isn't going back.

"They actually really liked the idea of Champ, because again, it's based in history," he said.

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).