“I don’t know if I can do this.”
My adrenaline is pumping, but for all the wrong reasons.
I thought this would be thrilling — a walk on the wild side, a dose of adventure. Now that I’m actually here, I’m having second thoughts.
“Sorry… I know we drove all the way out here, but… I really don’t think I can do this.”
“You know what?” My friend Bina turns to me. “I don’t think I can either.”
It’s not every day that one has the opportunity to interact with a tiger.
There are several ways you can see a tiger, if you’re so inclined — but a tiger you can pet? Hold? Take a picture with? How frequently is that an option for an afternoon activity?
In Chiang Mai, Thailand, it’s been an option since 2008, when Tiger Kingdom first opened its doors to the public and began offering visitors the chance to get up close and personal with tigers. Touting itself as an animal sanctuary, Tiger Kingdom claims to merge tourism and wildlife preservation by functioning both as a captive breeding facility and a unique travel experience. Visitors pay to spend 10-15 minutes with the tigers, getting to touch them, score some “awesome” photos, and feel good that their money is going towards the maintenance of the facility and therefore the protection of the tiger population.
Like many other tourists, I was intrigued by the notion of getting to breathe the same air as a tiger. I knew that Tiger Kingdom could in no way offer the cats the freedom they would naturally have in the wild, but I could find nothing definitively damning about the ethical nature of the facility. I envisioned a large plot of land in the outskirts of Chiang Mai where man and cat could roam together, where the tigers were unchained and so impeccably trained that human interaction was not dangerous. I expected that I might feel a bit ill at ease when actually seeing the tigers in captivity, but I also expected that the novelty of the experience would overshadow my discomfort.
At the very least, I expected that I would make it through the door.
From the moment I pull into the parking lot, I’m uneasy. The congregation of tuk-tuks and tourist vans makes red flags pop up everywhere in my brain. There’s no way that all of these visitors are here because of their passion for wildlife or their interest in supporting the preservation of the tiger population. They’re here because their hotel told them that they could take a selfie with a wild cat, and offered them a private shuttle to and from the attraction.
And it is clearly an attraction. Plastic three-meter tall letters reading TIGER KINGDOM spring up amidst manicured foliage alongside a rambling artificial pond complete with fountains and light fixtures. Posters advertising the lunch special and clusters of tourists logged onto the high-speed WiFi flank the lobby-esque staircase, which looks as much like the entrance to a sanctuary as The Bachelor looks like true love. The bucolic feline haven of my imagination appears to be a cross between an island resort and a Disneyland ride.
Although the unnervingly commercial exterior isn’t sitting well with me, I figure I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. “Maybe it’s not as bad as it looks,” I tell myself.
So, I tune out my doubt and continue to head inside.
But what I find on the inside is even harder to swallow.
At the top of the stairs is a rather imposing ticket counter displaying the packages available for purchase, which vary depending on the size of tiger you want to visit, if you want a photographer, if you want lunch included. TV screens flash images of babies snuggling tigers and of the specially-trained cats doing tricks in the pool. On one side of the ticket counter is a waiting area where the employees corral the tourists until it is their turn to be admitted; on the other side is a sprawling souvenir shop stocked with every piece of Tiger Kingdom merchandise you can imagine: shirts, hats, stuffed animals. Disney’s “Tigger” even makes an appearance. This doesn’t just look like a theme park; it is a theme park.
Most important to our story is the fact that a group of tigers are visible from this ticket counter area. Without purchasing a package, you can walk around the periphery of a small section of the facility and peer through the fence to see visitors interacting with the cats.
While I’m sure this feature is designed to whet the appetites of tourists and get them excited about their upcoming experience, this sneak-peek has the opposite effect on me. There are three tigers in view, each accompanied by a trainer and a gaggle of tourists. Each tiger is lying down, unrestrained by shackles as advertised, but clearly trained to sit still and remain in the immediate area. The three tigers are just about five feet from each other, barely giving them room to re-position themselves, let alone meander or play.
But as much as the reality of the tigers’ confined environment upsets me, it’s not what causes me to turn around and go home. What sends the needle of my moral compass spinning in circles is the interactive element — the very activity I came here to experience.
These tigers can barely catch a breath. By the time one visitor is done posing for his photograph, the next guy swoops in. Tourist after tourist waltzes up, lays his head on the reclining tiger or picks up its tail or its paw, says “cheese!” and swiftly walks away. All the while, the tiger just sits there, a marionette in the hands of slipshod puppeteers.
It’s this that I find so blatantly unnatural, so dubiously humane. How is it that these tigers have no visible reaction to a human stranger tugging on their tails or rubbing their bellies? How can these animals sit there hour after hour and not become at all agitated by the constant stream of paparazzi and unrelenting physical contact? They’ve taken the tigers out of the wild — but how has Tiger Kingdom taken so much wild out of the tigers?
According to Tony, the head trainer at Tiger Kingdom, the key to taming these animals is the use of a simple bamboo stick. Each trainer is equipped with a small baton with which he disciplines the tiger. Tony has been quoted as saying that if the tigers behave badly, “they will be dubbed on the nose[…] This is how they are trained when they are very young. The stick is only used for bad behavior.”
The three trainers I could see from my vantage point on the perimeter did each have a bamboo stick like the ones Tony references, and the tigers were responsive to them; but Tony must have a very loose definition of “misbehaving” to claim that the sticks are only used to admonish the tigers.
It seems to me that they are used to fully control and manipulate the animals. If the tiger tried to re-situate in between tourists, the trainer used the stick to keep the animal prostrate. I even saw one trainer use the stick to encourage the animal’s head towards the camera so the tourist could get a higher quality photo. What are the behavioral parameters for a wild cat that’s no longer wild? Is it showing aggression towards a stranger or mucking up a photo opportunity that gets you a thump on the nose?
Initially I imagined that with just a little bit of digging I’d find answers to my growing list of questions, that I’d be able to write some fantastic exposé and rip the mask off of this demonstrably dodgy set-up.
But my sleuthing turned up a surprisingly scant amount of information, none of which is incriminating and most of which is so cursory it’s almost useless. It seems that my visceral, “get the hell out of here” reaction was in response to an attraction that on paper is entirely up to standard.
Under the Thai Wild Animals Reservation and Protection Act of 1992, breeding tigers requires a license issued by the government, which Tiger Kingdom has. Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation monitors the facility and makes sure that the treatment of the animals at Tiger Kingdom is up to snuff, which apparently it is. Other tiger sanctuaries in Thailand have been exposed as inhumane and shut down accordingly, but Tiger Kingdom remains untouched by scandal.
Reason and research tell me that if this was a humane operation, these cats would not be touched in any way, shape or form by a human visitor, and logic and observation tell me that these cats must be heavily sedated in order to tolerate a lifestyle such as this. But Tiger Kingdom continues to promote the ethical nature of their facility, and there is no evidence to the contrary. They insist that the docile nature of their tigers is due to their having been bred in captivity, that human contact is “normal to them and that is why they are so [relaxed] when you play with them.” And as for why the cats are so sedentary, Tiger Kingdom has the following to say: “cats are cats and they sleep up to 18 hours a day, just like [a] kitty at home. Please do not assume our cats are drugged.” Clearly I’m not the only tourist who’s ever raised an eyebrow.
But clearly, many other tourists haven’t. Every day Tiger Kingdom is visited by flocks of tourists who are either willfully ignoring these moral uncertainties or truly do not notice that there are questionable ethics at play. I do not wish to disparage everyone who’s ever paid the 700 Baht entrance fee, but I do wish I could do a sweeping case study on the psychology that propels them inside. Has Tiger Kingdom’s positive press persuaded them that the facility is humane? Do they think that just one more person walking through that gate can’t hurt? Or are they so eager to pet a tiger that they’ll get their photographic evidence at any cost?
I turned around because I felt crushed under the gravity of my moral responsibility as a patron not to contribute to such a nauseating operation. Luckily, I was with a backpacker who felt similarly, but not every traveler will have so powerful a knee-jerk reaction. Tourists on holiday with full pockets and charged cameras are Tiger Kingdom’s ideal audience. If the facility is really so invested in the preservation of the tiger population, then they are the ones who need to spearhead the movement away from human interaction, because until stroking a tiger is no longer on the menu, thrill-seeking visitors will continue to come from far and wide for a table at Tiger Kingdom.
Figuratively, and literally. Because this “animal sanctuary” has a restaurant.
Need I say more?