Okay... so this was on The List. And I did this... Our third day in Thailand we did a tour, drove out the many hours to Kanchanaburi and paid to see and interact with tigers. It was all kinds of amazing, exactly like you'd expect it to be... except I do have put up a really big disclaimer: I didn't think I was doing a bad thing.
Which is to say - I was absolutely doing a bad thing. Because at the heart of it?
Wild animals shouldn't be used as tourist attractions to make money.
No wild animal should have to pose for a photo with me. No animal should be bred and then forced into interaction with people. I point blank didn't realise while I was out there what I was doing, and yes, I fully 100% agree that supporting the tourist fuelled animal abuse trade is horrific.
When I think about it now, I feel guilty. It was an experience of a lifetime, and I didn't stop to ask the bigger questions, and I didn't see the subtext.
So, photos first. Because it did happen and it was absolutely a highlight of our trip and I feel slightly ill thinking about it. Then why these photos are terrible, and what we can all do about the horrible horrible things.
Tiger Temple is not a conservation project
So, at the very start of the day we stopped and got food to donate to the monks. We had a wad of cash for donations to the temple too. We met the monks, kind of. We stood behind tables and they walked by us. As they went we put food in their baskets. It was awkward and weird.
We then met our very blonde, very young and very very American lady guide who told us thus: The monks at Tiger Temple took in a few rescued tigers. Originally they were circus animals, or possibly poached orphans. And the amazing monks cared for them and since then everything has gone swimmingly. They operate as a conversation project, and their main goal is retraining tigers to hunt and letting them loose on a reserve, and caring for those that couldn't fend for themselves. They let nature do their thing (which is to say, the tigers breed and have babies). They now have over 100 tigers, and we were lucky to be see a part of the whole big project while it was all going on.
Mm. After I left I started doing a bit more research. Turns out the Temple is neither a sanctuary nor a recognised conservation NGO, despite us paying out ‘donations'. To be a conservation project you have to promote the well being of the animals in captivity. You educate people about the animal and fund protective programs for animals in the wild. As a conversation project you fund the money you receive back into conservation and protection, right?
As I understand it and from what I saw the first one seemed to be on par (from my very limited, non-existent expertise). There weren't any education centres or displays about tigers at all. The protective programs in the wild also seemed non-existent (our blonde lady didn't have any answers about how they train tigers to return to hunt, and just said they weren't in the habit of releasing animals who can't help themselves into the wild...)
Tiger cubs shouldn't be removed from their mother for tourist photos
Next, our young blonde american guide gave us a run down of the rules. Remove all red clothing. The smaller ones are a bit like domestic cats, but sometime they bite. When it comes to the bigger tigers, don't touch the tigers faces, if you get permission to pat the tiger from the minder, only the back, and only the top. Don't turn your back on the tigers, and always pay attention to the minders. They're there to keep us safe.
And with that, they let us loose. We bottle fed some of the youngsters. Oh man, you guys they were adorable. Some were tiny and small and some really weren't. Each tiger had a minder or two, and we were able to move freely between them. Sometimes feeding them, sometimes patting them. Whichever. It really was a free for all.
Some of the larger cats were chained to the side... at the time it made sense from a safety point of view. Now? Now I think that perhaps there is a reason why tigers are mostly solitary and there is a reason why mother tigers feed the cubs, instead of human tourists. Perhaps being tied up to feed isn't the most awesome of things.
Now, here's the thing. These cubs were tiny. Some clearly less than a month old. The bigger ones which weren't even a year weren't as cuddly as the younger, smaller ones. If cubs are meant to stick to their mother until the two year mark, then these tiny little babies were being removed purely for us. The tourists, to take photos of and feed and pat.
I feel a bit ill, really. I was so happy at the time, but now? It's horrific. I had such a great time and it makes me uncomfortable to think about it. Sad face.
Next up we took the tigers for a walk. Which is to say, they handed us leashes, and we got a minder and we walked very carefully behind our tiger. Seriously, if he had wanted to bolt we wouldn't have been able to do anything to stop him. We stopped when he stopped. We walked when he walked. We followed him. The leash thing was a bit a of a misnomer, really.
Still, he had a belly full of milk and knew where he was going and was happy to go there. So off we went.
Seriously you guys, that grin on my face doesn't even come close to the joy I felt just then. Being so close to a tiger, the delight at following him around. It was amazing. Which I think in part is why I feel so guilty now. That little itty bitty tiger shouldn't be forced into interactions with humans, let alone paying tourists like me.
High risk interactions between tigers + tourists is not cool
He didn't really like what came next, either. We gave him a bath, which was less than fun for everyone. It's a bit bizarre to have your hands on the back end of a tiger, and then FEELING him rumble his unhappiness at being washed. He wasn't loud or vocal about it, other than the occasional ear flick. If I hadn't had my hands on him when he did it I wouldn't have noticed. Still, he doesn't look happy or comfortable, does he?
Which as I read it back, is kind of ridiculous.
I HAD MY HANDS ON A TIGER.
What the actual fuck, you guys. There is no way that is safe. After a quick google search I found this. That actually happened at Tiger Temple, a girl got mauled doing exactly what I was doing. Holy shit, you guys. I'm actually blown away by how cool but really not cool this all is.
A tigers diet needs to include red meat
So, after washing our grumbly tiger, We fed him chicken after to appease him. However, because he'd just eaten not an hour before he wasn't that interested. When I asked the keeper what they fed them, she pretty much waved the chicken around and said 'this'
Apparently red meat is too expensive? As I understand it tigers need to eat red meat regularly to get the enzyme taurine and other essential vitamins for their muscle development and long-term health... I'm really not sure about this, because while I'm sure that running the temple is expensive, but we paid a fuckton of money ("donation") to the temple, and counting the 20+ tourists in our crew, knowing they do it every day that's a lot of cash coming in. You'd think that red meat would be up there on the priority list...
Next up these young critters went back to their folks (or so we were told) and we walked one of the bigger cats down to the enrichment centre. When I say 'we' I mean the entire group of twenty. We got to walk behind the tiger, each taking a turn of about half a minute, snapping some photos and then moving out of the way for the next couple.
I'm actually kind of ashamed at my grin.
Next up, enrichment with the teens. This was actually really fun, and bar the completely not safe-ness in it, this part of the show seemed at least to be good for the tigers. They were very active, and played as they pleased. In fact, mostly they behaved exactly as a domestic cat would, if you had an enticing bit of string. Some weren't interested, and that was fine too.
We each had a minder and a stick of recyclables to wave about. I remember that one of the tigers lay down in the water (it was a stinking hot day, easily 40°C+) and he lay on my foot, wrapping his tail around our legs as he watched the bottles from above.
As you can see there is no barrier between us and the tigers. They were RIGHT THERE. Oh man. It's kind of mind blowing now, but at the time it seemed like the most natural thing to do in the world. So easy, and everyone assured us perfectly safe. Being in that context with people ushering you around and encouraging this kind of behaviour it just seemed so natural. You couldn't go there and make a fuss about being in a space with tigers, really. Better to not go at all I think.
Afterwards, we were ushered into much larger area, and had photos with an adult tiger with his head in your lap.
Okay, I personally don't think this tiger was drugged. Considering that tigers are mostly nocturnal, and it was hella hot, I can see this tiger being pretty placid. Apparently this tiger had been trained to do this, and had been doing it for such a long time he knew the drill and wasn't bothered by it (this doesn't excuse the practice or make it safe... my point is I don't think he was drugged). I think even more telling was that once we'd all had our photos, he got up and was just as active as the other cats.
What I remember though, is that his head was really heavy. Ridiculously heavy. His fur wasn't as soft like I imagined, but thick and a bit rough to the touch. He was amazing, and huge. The size of him was overwhelming. He watched lots of people but after a while was happy to close his eyes and snooze in the heat. He was pretty aware, if someone came too near he opened his eyes to look at them. It was pretty awe inspiring.
In saying that, it 100% isn't okay to train a tiger to do this. It 100% is not okay to pay money and have an animals behaviour changed for tourist photo opportunities.
It is not okay to train animals behaviour to do tricks for tourists
Next up, we were corralled into a little pen (mostly a flimsy fence tied together with string. True story) and we watched some of the adults play. They had been chained to hoops in the ground, but once loose mostly hung out. It was really really hot, so while some of them were reluctant to play, one or two could be coerced into chasing the bag of recyclables on a stick.
After the show we went on our merry way. As I was thinking about it after, there were a few questions I wished I'd ask, but didn't. Or if I did ask, was redirected or shut down.
Illegal tiger trafficking? That shouldn't even be a question.
One of the questions I had is if they're allowing the tigers to breed naturally (which they are, when I asked I got a haughty american accent with the comment 'I don't know why anyone would say more tigers in the world is a bad thing') then if there are 100+ tigers breeding, with a reproductive cycle of a litter a year, and it's been around for over 15 years... shouldn't there be more tigers? A lot more tigers? Where are all the other tigers?
Where are the trained professionals?
Our blonde guide was blissfully in her first season as a paid professional. Previously? All her tiger experience was here, as a volunteer, which is kind of disturbing. Also, I'm pretty sure the minders we had didn't have degrees in zoology or biology (or whatever it is that people who work with animals are meant to educate themselves in). To be fair, they literally just seemed like people pulled from wherever they could find them. The complete opposite of what I'd expect of a sanctuary.
There were many terrible things, but this trip was amazing.
So, there are many things which are less than awesome about this place. But what I struggle with most? This trip was amazing. Being so near the tigers was amazing. Having a tiger comfortable enough to snooze in my lap was by far one of the most phenomenal things I've ever experienced. I struggle because all of things were so very amazing to experience, and I'd love to do all of it all over again.
I also know that this practice is terrible. Morally I'm 100% opposed to animals in captivity being trained unnatural behaviour to do tricks for tourists. It makes me uncomfortable, and it's not something I want to encourage.
However, the pull of all of the amazing is really really strong. I actively have to keep thinking that in a way it's a kind of rape (forcing an animal into unnatural behaviours) to pull my feelings about that day into line with my moral values.
Should you go to Tiger Temple? No.
I want to say no. Don't go. Don't buy into animal cruelty. But, I get that some people are a bit dubious and have different morals than me. This guy volunteered there, has a whole bunch of posts about it and came to a similar conclusion. If you go, he says be aware that your money is not supporting tiger conservation. The tigers, which are the stars of the show are practically working in a circus. It's a tiger business.
How to help
Donate. Donate to WWF's TX2 Tiger program. A program across 12 countries with an aim double the number of tigers in the wild. Apparently there as few as 3,000 wild tigers left in the world. Part of it is a lack of habitat, part of it because some cultures still believe that tiger products cure ills (they don't), which creates a demand for poaching.
TX2 aims has six aims:
1. End demand for tiger parts, but educating consumers away from tiger products. 2. Reduce the means by which tigers are culled, through anti-poaching measure and the political scene. 3. To protect tiger habitat, to establish protected areas and corridors between them. 4. Encourage knowledge around research and monitoring techniques 5. Reduce conflict between people and tigers. 6. Increase political will, funding and commitment moving forward.
As far as I can tell from the research I've done, this seems to be the most efficient and forward thinking campaign for tigers at the moment.
So. I went. #72, done. I think this is the first time that I've ever had regret over completing something from The List. Sad face.