Johnny Hart's of "B.C." anteater
The late Johnny Hart, creator of the "B.C." comic strip that inspired Peter the Anteater, sent this original drawing to his "patient friends" at UCI. Johnny Hart / John Hart Studios

Four years ago, when Mason Mastroianni decided to continue the beloved “B.C.” comic strip created by his grandfather, the late Johnny Hart, he also inherited a cherished piece of UC Irvine history.

The anteater caricature in “B.C.” is an early ancestor of campus mascot Peter the Anteater.

The comic strip features a humpbacked, sticky-tongued creature that
bears more than a passing resemblance to Peter, and for good reason:
Since UCI students voted for an anteater as their official mascot in
1965, Hart’s cartoon critter has inspired countless likenesses — from
stately bronzes that adorn the UCI Student Center and Bren Events Center
to kitschy key chains and other snout-nosed paraphernalia that remain
perennial favorites at the UCI Bookstore.

“Zot!” — which has become part of the campus lexicon — also dates back to “B.C.” The rallying cry, ZotMail, ZotZine, Zot!Wire and Zot-n-Go all originate from the smacking sound Hart’s anteater makes when he gloms onto prey.

Mastroianni will get a firsthand look at the mascot mania his grandfather inspired when he appears at Celebrate UCI, the campus’s open house, on Saturday, April 16.

The 33-year-old artist will teach kids to draw anteaters in Aldrich Park from 11 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on the Family Stage and give a talk and drawing demonstration for adults at an “Anteater Legacy” event from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. in the UCI Student Center, Emerald Bay CDE. He’ll also attend a noon pep rally Friday, April 15, at the Student Center’s Terrace Stage, where he’ll challenge Peter the Anteater to a game of Pictionary.

“If I lose, I’ll never draw again,” Mastroianni jokes.

Hart, who died of a stroke in 2007, never visited UCI, but he was thrilled when asked if the university could use his anteater as a mascot model, says his daughter (and Mastroianni’s mother) Patti Pomeroy, the business manager for John Hart Studios, in New York.

“I was only about 10 at the time, but I remember it was kind of a big deal. My mother cut out all the newspaper articles about the mascot and put them in a scrapbook,” she says. “Dad was always really proud of it.”

Peter the Anteater’s origins can be traced back to the summer of ’65, before UCI had even opened. Pat Glasgow ’68 was working as a lifeguard at Newport Beach when the idea came to him out of the blue.

“I was at the beach thinking about how we were going to be UCI’s charter students and how we needed a mascot,” he recalls. “It was the ’60s. I was part of a generation that questioned everything. So I wasn’t thinking about a traditional mascot, like Tommy the Trojan or a bear. Don’t ask me how or why, but the word ‘anteater’ just came to me.”

Once classes started, other students — namely Glasgow’s good friend and fellow water polo player Bob Ernst ’67 and Schuyler Hadley Bassett ’70 — jumped on the anteater bandwagon. They held an impromptu vote at a school dance in favor of the anteater, but university administrators insisted on a formal campuswide election pitting Peter against more conventional mascots, including an eagle and a unicorn.

“A lot of people thought we were turning the mascot into a farce,” Glasgow says. “But the anteater was just an antihero. He was kind of standing up for passiveness. But when backed into a corner, anteaters will fight.”

On a pre-election night in Bassett’s dorm room that may or may not have involved beer, Glasgow says, the students drew an anteater based not on Hart’s comic but on a somewhat less wholesome symbol — the Playboy bunny. Bassett even copyrighted the image of “Peter Playboy” sporting a bow tie and rabbit ears.

“We mimeographed 200 copies, distributed them around campus, and they disappeared immediately,” Glasgow says. “Students were using them to decorate their dorm rooms and notebooks.”

In November 1965, after students officially voted in the anteater, many embraced their far-out mascot — even founding Chancellor Daniel G. Aldrich Jr.

“After the election, Dr. Dan came to one of our water polo games. He was shouting ‘Zot!’ the loudest,” recalls Glasgow, one of the first UCI students to earn NCAA All-American honors. (Now retired in Newport Beach, he served as a volunteer men’s water polo coach at UCI from 1997 to 2008.)

Glasgow says he, Ernst and Bassett wrote to Hart asking if they could mimic his anteater and “Zot!” (In a special follow-up election, students opted for a mascot based on the B.C. anteater over the Playboy version.)

“We never heard back from him, but many years later I learned that he had sent a letter to the university saying he’d be pleased,” Glasgow says. Hart also sent an original autographed drawing of an anteater bearing UCI’s colors.

Today, Mastroianni says the anteater is one of his favorite characters to draw for “B.C.”

He and his mother are impressed with UCI’s many artistic interpretations of anteaters over the years, as well as the mascot’s evolution from cuddly, oversized plush toy to fierce competitor.

“Peter’s gotten pretty buff, compared to the anteater that my father drew,” Pomeroy says. “It’s been quite a progression.”