When my trip to Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai was previewed during a Photo of the Week, commenters had many insightful questions, mostly along the lines of this: What exactly is it that you are doing in a cage with a vicious wild animal that could rip your left lung out with the swipe of a paw?
Well. Excellent question. Let’s back up a bit.
Over the years I have avoided the controversial Tiger Temple outside Bangkok and it’s lesser-known cousin Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai. These are zoo-like places that allow visitors to enter tiger enclosures to pet and be photographed with the animals. I had not done much research but had two vague objections which kept me from seeking out these attractions.
First, I consider myself an animal lover and these places are a PETA no-go zone, as hardcore animal activists argue that wild animals shouldn’t be caged and put on display for our amusement in any setting (zoos, aquariums, etc.). I’m a big fan of the well-run zoo and so I don’t agree with that. However, Tiger Temple and Tiger Kingdom are on shaky moral ground as rumors abound that the cats are kept higher than Lindsay Lohan on her way to court-ordered rehab. You know, on account of they don’t want people getting mauled in the face.
Second, while this is a much smaller consideration, I always kind of felt that these places were major overpriced tourist traps.
Well, somehow I found myself in the center of Chiang Mai in a stare down with a tuk-tuk driver over prices to get to Tiger Kingdom. Two things convinced me to go. One, I was in a complete mental and emotional daze over my recent life changes. My friends Wim and Dave probably could have suggested that we go deforest the Amazon or embezzle some retirement funds and I would have nodded blankly and started walking in that direction. Two, I really, really wanted to pet a baby tiger. I AM NOT MADE OF STONE, PEOPLE.
As we arrived I was curious to see how my two objections would play out. On the overpriced front, I was of course totally accurate. Tiger Kingdom charges separately for each time you walk into one of the tiger enclosures, which are categorized by “big,” “medium,” “small,” and “smallest” tigers. To go into each enclosure ranges in price between 420-620 baht ($13-20usd). Because we kind of figured this is a once in a lifetime thing we went for one of the combo packages, paying 1,260 baht ($40usd) to go in the cages of the big, small, and smallest tigers. There were also photo packages available but between three people and two cameras we had that covered. This is one of the priciest activities I have taken part in throughout Thailand.
Now, onto the drugging debate. Do the tigers above look drugged to you? Yeah, not to me either. At this point, standing with my little paper cage-entry tickets and watching these creatures buck and roar, I kind of secretly hoped they ones I was about to meet had been slipped an Ambien or something at least. (Just kidding, crazy animal people. Please don’t throw red paint on my coat. It is pleather.)
But yes, moments before we walked into the cage, I felt fear for the first time since the whole idea came up. Hey, want to go pay butt-loads of money to be placed inside the cage with a 300lb. beast? HECK YES! Actually standing in front of a sign warning you not to put your fingers through the cage for fear of dismemberment? It brought on slightly different emotions. Um, did I not just pay to go into that cage?
And this was before I had ever even read about the woman being mauled at the “tame” cheetah park.
Luckily they started us out slow, with the small (but not smallest!) tigers. There were about six in the grassy enclosure and half were snoozing while the other half romped around. It was pretty surreal to walk up to a sleeping jungle animal like it was some kind of house cat. I think of myself as fairly gutsy, yet it took a bit of prompting by the handlers for me to actually reach down and stroke their coarse fur.
I had seen promotional photos of people using the tigers’ tummies as little head pillows, a pose that I wouldn’t quite choose for myself partially due to my laziness towards hair-washing. But the handlers very enthusiastically insisted that I take part, and so I did, with somewhat hilarious results.
Of course the tigers, who had snoozed through this routine for both Wim and Dave, chose the exact moment I made contact to engage in some terrifying sleep-stretching. At this time I learned exactly how fast I am truly capable of going from the laying-down to the sprinting position.
Once my nerves subsided, it was time for the big cats. I was pretty comfortable with the idea of the tigers at this point, until I realized how hyper-alert the keepers in this cage were. They definitely knew their charges well and were quick to tell us where to touch, when we were too close, etc.
As with the human population, tigers get lazier with age and these big boys were actually quite sedate. Still, when I touched them I was shocked; it was nothing but pure, lean muscle beneath that wiry coat. The tail alone felt like a hundred pounds in my hands.
Obviously I took the whole thing very seriously.
There was one moment where things got a little real. As Wim and Dave were posing for a typical honeymoon us-with-a-tiger shot, their costar got a little fussy and gave out a tiny roar. Lucky I captured Wim’s reaction on camera. After that we decided it was time for tiny tigers only.
We had definitely saved the best cats for last. Unfortunately, we had also saved our sweatiest, grossest selves for last. If you really want post-card worthy photos with these little guys, I recommend trying to see them first, or bring at the least bring along a hairbrush or something. I kind of cringed when I saw myself in a mirror on the way in and realized I was about to take part in the most well-documented 12 minutes of my life.
That thought pretty much evaporated the moment we got on the floor and started tummy-time with these munchkins. What is it about us biologically that makes it impossible to not melt at the sight of tiny baby creatures?
I mean, we can all go home now, right? Because this is the most adorable thing that’s ever happened in the history of the world.
The cubs were hilarious. A few were sleepy but the majority ran around like little caffeine machines. They pounced, swatted, and played, and at one point one cub took a little nibble on someone’s hand! The trainer swatted him lightly on the nose and said “no,” which amusingly is the same tactic I used while trying and failing to train my dog Tucker.
So what about the drugging charges? Tiger Kingdom vehemently denies them, claiming the tigers behave the way they do due to a combination of factors. For one, they are nocturnal animals and thus are used to sleeping through visitor hours. Also, the average tiger sleeps 16-18 hours per day! Lastly, these tigers are extremely well-fed, as opposed to their wild cousins who spend the majority of their waking hours hunting. So, as one keeper explained to me, with all their basic needs met, the tigers turn to laziness (for more evidence of this phenomenon, reference 97% of the human race).
After interacting with these animals it is of my opinion that they are not drugged. If they are, it must be fairly lightly because they are quick to play, react, and interact.
Of course I cannot say with 100% certainty whether or not these animals are being sedated or whether or not they are happy, and I completely respect the decisions of those who decide to stay away. But I can tell you this: I have learned to listen to my gut when it comes to these matters, and I left here with a clean conscience. I’m really glad I visited Tiger Kingdom. I went in expecting a feeling of discomfort that has become familiar when it comes to animal attractions in Southeast Asia, but it was a majorly pleasant surprise.
What do you think? Have you or would you visit a place like this?
To see the full set of my photos from Tiger Kingdom, click here.