They should never have been here, there was no doubt about that but as the tuk-tuk driver had quite bluntly said “Thailand is not like your country. You see a tiger, you want to protect it. Someone like me looks at a tiger, it’s money”. There wasn’t much I could say to that and yet as I stood outside the enclosure waiting to go in, I was having a bit of a last minute ethical dilemma.
On the one hand, it was like a dream. The opportunity to sit with and simply observe such majestic creatures was mind blowing. On the other hand, having read scathing reports of animals being drugged for entertainment, I was understandably apprehensive. I’m no animal-activist but there’s no way I’d be comfortable with freely funding animal abuse.
I did a lot of pre-reading prior to my trip and while there are a number of places masquerading as conservation centres that do drug their tigers, I was comforted by the way Tiger Kingdom prided itself on the treatment of its animals and its participation in anti-drugging campaigns.
I’d paid roughly £45 to visit the Tiger Kingdom sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. My £45 had bought me sessions with the baby cubs, the youngsters and the big tigers with my own photographer thrown in to make sure I had cool photos to show for it at the end.
Only after I’d been briefed on the rules (no touching their heads/paws, no picking the cubs up etc), washed my hands and taken off my shoes was I allowed into the enclosure to sit with the cubs. It was instantly clear that they were not in the slightest bit drugged. There were three cubs playing around when the trainer and I entered. One dozing while the other two darted around with all the energy you’d expect of a baby; chewing on toys and attacking each others’ tails. I sat down and let them come to me. The trainer even gave me half a coconut shell to play with them with.
It’s difficult to verbalise the incredible feeling of interacting with the cubs and as it happens, with the feeling of their slightly coarse fur running between your fingers, you know that it’s a moment you will never forget.
While I was stroking one of the cubs, one of the two others cubs tried to bite the other. He got a little rap on the nose from the trainer and that was that. Quite honestly, it was nothing different from what our cats at home get if they bite or claw someone and they’ve learnt well enough. While it’s hardly fair to draw comparisons between a cat and a tiger, I don’t think it counts as animal abuse.
It was time to move on and with a final stroke, I said goodbye to the little ones and set off to find the younger tigers. No longer babies but not quite adults, these cubs were in the 6-12 months bracket but goodness me, the size of them! I would’ve guessed they were years old but no, they just grow really quickly. Being a lot bigger, they’re a lot stronger and more powerful so the safety rules are much stricter when you see these ones and the handlers are less inclined to let you actually sit within their reach, especially not in front of them where you’d be an easy target.
The final stop was the big cats who, despite being classified as the oldest, were no older than 30 months. Apparently this is because any older than this and it’s not just not safe. It was only as I was sat in the big cat enclosure that I felt a bit uncomfortable. The cats themselves looked perfectly happy and seemed to have a really good relationship with the keepers. Some of them were asleep but I don’t think this means they were drugged – cats sleep all the time!
There’s no debating the fact that it’s a phenomenal experience and an honour to spend time with such amazing creatures. If interacting with tigers is on your bucket list, this is the best place to do it.