First of all; is it a good idea to put tigers in cages so people can go pet them? I honestly asked myself that question, and I will give you my answer later. But first, the tigers.
Tiger #1, handler and photographer. They were much less nervous than I was. The $10 photographer fee is ridiculously high, but how often does one do this? By the way, the pictures are mine, unless I am in them.
I have seen most big cats in the wild, but never tigers. I think they are the most awesome, beautiful species of big cats out there.
And I am really amused by how “house cat-like” they behave!
I had come mentally prepared for the idea of being in a cage with a tiger, but I didn’t realize there would be 3 of them. And as much as I was fine with having a tiger in front of me, having one behind me was a little unnerving. But not enough not to take a selfie.
At Thailand’s Tiger Kingdom, you can chose to spend some time with baby, small, medium or large tigers (or all, if you want to splurge). I chose large.
And they were massive! Amazing to think that this species of tigers, the Indochinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti) is not particularly big by tiger standards. But a fully grown male can still weight well over 400 pounds!
If you pet a tiger, you have to do it somewhat hard. Apparently a soft touch is annoying to them, like having insects walk over you. I don’t know if they like being petted, but I was told they really enjoy getting their tummies rubbed. Looking at this picture, I believe it! That’s tiger #2 by the way.
And tiger #3. Glad to be sitting on the tail end of the beast. Actually, the rules are as such: you cannot approach them from the front, touch their front paws or their heads. For their part, the tigers are trained to not turn towards you and not to play with you. If they turn around too much, the handler will get their attention back to the front. The reason for all this is that well fed and unstressed tigers like to play. I saw the younger ones doing it amongst themselves. And playing does not involve a Monopoly board or an X-Box, it mostly involves biting and clawing each other in the face. This is done playfully, but a playful bite to the face of a thick skinned 400 pound tiger is much less fun when done on a human. So the bottom line is that you can train a tiger not to play with humans, but you can’t train them to “play gently and nicely” with humans.
And that’s it. A few tens of dollars and 10 minutes with tigers. I got to see them from ridiculously close and I got really cool pictures. So the question again; is it a good idea to put animals in cages so tourists can go play with them?
First of all, I am no card carrying PETA member myself. If you are, you can stop reading right now and put me on your “to kill” list, because I ate dog soup in North Korea. On the other hand, I don’t like the idea of zoos. When I visited the one in Sydney, I amused myself by taking mostly pictures of animals who looked bored or annoyed.
A big factor is the kind of animal. I can’t imagine why a goat in a nicely maintained petting zoo would be miserable compared to a wild goat foraging for scarce food while avoiding predators. But putting an eagle in a cage? That’s just sad. Then again, for all I know, even the eagle might not mind. “Food magically happens and I don’t even have to do that tiresome flying thing anymore. Awesome place!” After all, if well fed and provided with all their basic needs (i.e. a couch and a TV), millions of humans choose to never do anything else ever again. So who knows if the eagle is happy? But I don’t care, I choose to find it sad, because I anthropomorphize the situation and I imagine that if I were an eagle I would want to soar over the hills of Los Angeles, using my amazing eagle vision to peer into the bedrooms of hot actresses. Wait! I mean to look for rats… To eat… Gross.
Another factor, a completely selfish one this time, is how else can you see these animals? Go on any safari drive in a good African park during the right season and you will see all sorts of elephants, lions, hippos, buffalos, giraffes, etc. But tigers? They are known to be elusive, nocturnal and rare.
More importantly, there is issue of options. There are only a few hundred Indonesian tigers left in the world. In Thailand, there are a few natural reserves with tigers, but the problem is that they are territorial and require vast amounts of space, which in populous Thailand is simply not available. Maybe breeding them in captivity like they do here is not such a bad thing? All the tigers in these places were born there and raised by humans. In any case, if one disagrees with the concept, the option that is not on the table is releasing them. Tigers born in captivity will do exactly the opposite of wild tigers if they see a village: they will go check it out. And since nobody wants their kid to become tiger lunch, the villagers will immediately shoot them.
As far as the tigers themselves, I try to think of it as a job. That would be the advertisement for it.
Eligibility: Must be a tiger. Must be born in captivity.
Task: Get petted and rubbed, 8 hours a day, at the most annoying time, in broad daylight during the desired 12 hour daytime nap.
Salary: 6 chickens/day (I asked).
Benefits: Full medical/dental, on average double the life expectancy versus the wild, no competing predators, no poachers, belly rubs.
Workplace hazard: Eating humans is punishable by death.
This last part is serious. In 2014, one of the tigers seriously mauled an Australian tourist at Tiger Kingdom’s other location, in Phuket. Apparently the man was sitting on the floor and asked the handler for some help getting up. As I understood the articles I read, the probably heavy man was pulled up, but the probably smaller Thai handler was also pulled down. The tiger though the handler was being attacked and just destroyed the tourist (who did survive, after hundreds of stitches). I didn’t read about the aftermath, but there can only be one ending; the tiger was put down. Anywhere in the world when an animal attacks or kills a human that’s the final outcome. Unfortunate, but then again, if it was a starving wild tiger who had decided to go after a scary human, the end result would be the same.
The most common accusation against such places is that they ensure the animal’s compliance by drugging them. This belief is due to the fact that most tourists see the tigers looking literally passed out. Even when handlers poke them, they don’t even open an eye or move. I can actually understand their worry. But the reality is that tigers are nocturnal animals and sleep 18 hours a day! Because they were raised into this life, humans walking around the enclosure is something they couldn’t possibly care less about.
Wanting to avoid passed-out tigers, I went half an hour before the place even opened and was the first in the cage. Actually, I was so early that when I tried to get some soup at a little eatery, I was told: “Sir, this is the employee cantine. The restaurant is not open yet!” You can see the tigers I hung around with were not the most active, but they were awake. Because being awake at 8 am is annoying for a tiger, but being awake at noon is outrageous.
And if I still had any doubts, they disappeared just after I exited the cage. A security guard removed a “No trespassing” sign and a delivery van drove up behind the cage (the site is normally closed to all traffic).
Now, a van is NOT normal in these guy’s environment! The tigers were jumping over each other, tails moving around (not good, opposite from a dog).
They did not look like kitty cats anymore and you can see the kid, probably the child of an employee, was not enjoying them at all! The handlers had to extend the visit of customer #2 – right after me – because the tigers were not safe to approach until the van left and they had calmed down. So, granted I’m not a veterinarian, but these tigers are definetly not drugged.
I actually observed a similar behaviour in Namibia when I stumbled upon this young male lion (I was in a jeep). He immediately woke up and stared at us intruders.
But it was already 8 or 9 am, and lions sleep even more than tigers, up to 20 hours a day! The good idea to keep a look on us was too much for him.
And he was gone! Needless to say, this wild lion is not drugged, he is just being a lion. However, unlike the tiger handlers, I would not have poked this cat to prove my point!
So good, bad, fun or sad? I don’t know. I don’t like zoos, but I went to this place and I liked it.