I cuddle with tigers in Thailand: photos, stories, and bucket list successes.
As far as individual excursions go, I had two major points of trepidation with Thailand. Should I ride an Elephant? and Should I pet a tiger?
A lot of people would have no trouble slapping a big YES or a big NO on these, but I struggled with the decisions for months. Tiger Kingdoms, like the ones in Chiang Mai or Phucket, are primarily businesses. Regardless of conservation efforts, the goal is income. That being said, there is some conservation involved. Tiger Kingdoms take care of tigers and allow them to breed, giving medical attention etc. Whether or not you think this is better or worse than letting the species go extinct, there’s no denying that the species is being given an opportunity to increase in numbers. However, Tiger Kingdoms never intend to rehabilitate the tigers back into the wild (not that they could, animals raised in captivity wouldn’t cope well being released).
There is also a huge amount of controversy surrounding the Tiger Kingdoms on their treatment of the tigers. Many sources claim (anecdotally) that the tigers are drugged, a plausible explanation for their placated state. Obviously this information initially turned me off of the idea of visiting a Tiger Kingdom, but most of the sources I had found about mistreatment were referring to the location in Phuket.
The people complaining about drugged tigers in Chiang Mai didn’t sound so sure of themselves. I found zero credible sources claiming that the tigers were actually drugged, but it is possible that is due to the lack of animal protection regulations in Thailand.
For the majority of my time in Thailand, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to participate in the tiger cuddlin’. I was just too uncomfortable with the idea that I’d be contributing to something that would be directly causing harm to an endangered species. However, as the weeks went by, more and more of my classmates went to the Tiger Kingdom. Every single one of them came back with positive experiences, including those who had very strong convictions against animal cruelty. That was the tipping point that made me decide to give in to my relentless desires to experience everything.
Myself and two others hopped aboard a Sawng-Thaew and rode about a half an hour from the center of the city. Tiger Kingdom’s business was booming, parking lot completely full. Tourists from all over the world crowded around the lobby, giftshop, and surrounding areas. We bought tickets to see the largest tigers and the smallest tigers (not counting the newborns). I didn’t see a point in paying for an additional ticket to see the medium sized tigers. We signed waivers (which I read fully) and waited for our numbers to pop up on a screen.
In the meantime, we watched large tigers from a viewing area, as well as some newborns sleeping in a nursery. One thing was immediately clear to me about the massive tigers playing in the viewing area below: they were not drugged.
These tigers were very awake and very active, tails twitching and muscles rippling. They jumped into pools, ran around the grounds, stood on their hindquarters to reach toys dangling above, and interacted with one another. Another thing I realized was that these tigers were very well looked after. They looked well fed, had plenty of open space, and seemed to be getting plenty of exercise. I’m no animal expert, nor do I claim to be, but I can say with subjective certainty that these tigers were being treated as well as, if not better than, zoos in America.
Soon, it was our turn, and we were told to first enter a large cage with the biggest tigers.
I can’t recall exact numbers for certain, but I would say that there were about seven employees for each tiger. Anytime a tiger would move, even with lazy apathy, workers would come forward with sticks, making sure we stepped back.
I was first to kneel down next to a tiger. The kitty was lounging on its side, tail twitching. The worker encouraged us to lay our heads down on the tiger’s back, but told us not to go anywhere near the head.
We spent the rest of our time like this, gingerly stepping toward each tiger, hearts racing, placing our heads down on their backs and listening to the deep, gruff rumbling of their steady breath.
We were encouraged to grab their tails, touch their padded paws, and stroke their backs.
There wasn’t much to do besides take pictures and experience these tigers’ presence.
Tiger fur is very course.
It sticks to your hands and your clothing.
Tiger tails are very strong, and can knock you over.
Tiger paws are smooth and squishy.
I can’t believe I know these things.