When my friend ST visited, we spent a day up close with tigers and elephants. There are lots of places in Thailand where you can interact with animals. I take a “when in Rome” approach to travel, so I was game to go along and didn’t give it much thought. Our wild day started with a short stop to the infamous Bridge on the River Kwai followed by visits to the Tiger Temple and an elephant village. I’ve already covered the infamous “Death Bridge,” but this post and the next two posts will discuss our experience with the animals.
This blog post was actually difficult for me to write. I know now tiger and elephant tourist places are controversial and found myself conflicted throughout the day. Many are quite rightly appalled at the conditions in which these animals live or how they are treated. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t give it a lot of thought or do any research myself before we went. National Geographic did a story the week we were there with allegations against the Tiger Temple for allegedly trading tigers to a tiger farm in Laos for black market sale. And I have since learned about other allegations of abuse at the Tiger Temple specifically. Learning this information makes me feel disappointed and angry but sadly not surprised.
Both experiences were touted as “educational,” implying we would get to learn about the tigers’ and elephants’ status in the wild, care, temperaments, and other, well, educational information. That did not happen. Also, ST and I both wondered how aware the volunteers are of the Tiger Temple elicit activities. The employees and volunteers we met and interacted with clearly love these animals, and many of them have come to the Tiger Temple from other countries to work there. So it’s confusing to me how that all works.
These tigers are magnificent. At the same time, throughout the day I kept thinking about how these are wild animals, and humans have no business being within their paw reach. It seems the animals who are calm enough to be around humans this much have lost some fundamental wildness (or had it drugged out of them), and that makes me deeply sad. Also, there were just tigers everywhere. I thought about not posting anything after I learned about the allegations, but then I decided that wasn’t fair either. So I’ll tell you all about my visit there in this post and the next, and you can decide for yourselves what you think about it.
The Tiger Temple has 148 tigers, 120 of whom were born there and raised by humans. They are not worshipped by the Buddhist monks or by the visitors. Rather, the association with the temple comes from an old practice of bringing injured, sick or abandoned tigers to monks for them to care for. The current tiger attraction grew from the first tiger that was brought to the monks in 1999. I didn’t really see the monks interact with the tigers, but there were a lot more tigers than monks, I think. Plus, the monks spent most of our visit there at their prayers, so other times of the day may be different. The attraction is staffed with both full-time, non-monastic staff and volunteers who care for the animals.
Our visit to the Tiger Temple began with sharing food with the monks to demonstrate respect and help provide for these men who choose an ascetic life to achieve enlightenment. It’s important, especially as a woman, not to touch the monks, so you carefully place the food in their bowl and then offer a wai, the Thai gesture of respect. The monks then share all of the food together. It’s basically impossible to overstate how revered in Thai society Buddhist monks are, which complicates the investigations into the Tiger Temple, as you can imagine.
After offering the food to the monks, we walked through the tiger area and saw a variety of animals there: water buffalo, different kinds of deer, and a wild boar. Next it was time to feed the juvenile tigers their breakfast via bottles. We each had a chance to take some photos with the “little” tigers.
While the others went over for breakfast, I stayed and watched the tigers and was simply awestruck by their beauty. For the most part, I would have preferred an option just to watch and photograph the tigers from so close a range. It was interesting interacting with them, and they were all pretty calm if you followed the instructions, but I really enjoyed watching them more. Photographer quirk, I suppose. I wondered a few times if they had been tranquilized.
After breakfast, we each walked a juvenile tiger for a bit. It’s important to stay behind the tiger’s shoulders at all times and keep an eye out to make sure your tiger doesn’t go for someone in front of you. “Don’t turn your back to a tiger” fits with “Don’t stand under the coconut tree” as obvious but important life advice.
Check back tomorrow for more details about my time with the adult tigers.
Title quote: T.S. Eliot