The Low-Down on Thailand’s Tiger Kingdom

A life spent from the inside looking out.

A life spent from the inside looking out.

Perhaps you are in Thailand, or planning a visit to Thailand, and you’ve heard about tiger tourism. Maybe you’re like me and you want to know more, like is it bad, am I being a responsible tourist by going, can I resist the urge to cuddle a baby tiger? If so, read on, and I will attempt to describe what this place is like so you can decide for yourself.

On my trip to Thailand, I spent about a week in the north, in Chiang Mai. The obvious things to do in Chiang Mai are cooking class, meditation class, something to do with elephants, visiting temples, eating yummy food, and visiting the markets. Being a huge lover of animals and anything to do with animals, I signed up for a day with the elephants, which was fabulous, but I also stumbled upon this place called Tiger Kingdom. I had seen pictures from friends holding, cuddling, feeding baby tigers, and I thought ‘Oh this is my shot to do that!’. And then I had a friend tell me, “I’ll be so disappointed in you if you do the Tiger thing.” Thus my moral dilemma presented itself. I read about elephant tourism and why it was generally bad (with the exceptions of a few places), but I hadn’t heard too much about tiger tourism- so I started a little google investigation, and there wasn’t that much information about it, much of it contradictory to one another, so I decided I had to go and investigate this place myself- and yes I will admit, I really wanted to see those baby tigers.

Just looking adorable on top of a 4 month old tiger, the usual.

Just looking adorable on top of a 4 month old tiger, the usual.

Now there are a few places for tiger tourism in Thailand (even though all of them say theirs is the ONLY one!). There is Tiger Temple near Bangkok, and Tiger Kingdom has 2 locations- near Phuket and near Chiang Mai. I went to the one in Mae Rim, outside of Chiang Mai. The things I have heard about Tiger Temple were really bad, so I knew I at least wanted to avoid that one, but I didn’t read anything too bad about Tiger Kingdom.

I took a tuk-tuk to get there, and for a nominal fee, my driver waited for me. The place was swarming with tourists, so they informed me that I would have to wait at least an hour before my number would be called to go back into the park and see the tigers. At this place, they have Baby, Small, Medium and Big Cats- with their reported age ranges from a couple months to 3 years maximum. You have to pay separate fees for each enclosure you want to get into (these are cages in the sense that they are confined and have bars around them, but they are somewhat large areas inside), and for an additional fee, you can hire the professional photographer to take photos of you with the tigers. I paid the fee for the baby tigers, and I paid to go into the cage with the big cats. If you don’t want to go into the cages, you can pay just to walk around the park. So, I hung around and was called to go in with the babies. Before you go in, they make you wash your hands and you have to wear their ugly plastic sandals inside for the protection of the little one’s immune systems (they don’t want anything to happen to their big money makers). There were 2 separate enclosures with 4 month olds and 2 month olds. And yes, they were adorable. They reminded me of domestic puppies or kittens, which they essentially are. A few of them were pretty sleepy, but some of them were also playful. Tiger Kingdom states that they do NOT drug their animals, and they insist that like regular cats, tigers sleep large portions of the day- especially in the mid-day heat when most tourists are around. I can believe this, but I still do wonder- I mean, they can say anything they want.

This is what my heaven looks like.

With a 2 month old spunky little thing.

Next, I moved onto the big cats enclosure. This is where things get sad. There were maybe 5 huge tigers inside the enclosure that was easily the smallest and most popular. You wait in line for your number to be called, as if you were in line at the deli to get some meat, they call your group in, 5 people at a time, and a dedicated “trainer” takes you around to each tiger so you can get a picture, before moving you along to the next one. I was in there for a total of about 10 minutes. I went by myself, so my guide took photos of me. He looked totally bored, telling me the standard poses to get into, took a couple of photos, then moved me along to the next in a robotic fashion. I could have cared less about getting a photo with each tiger- most of which were completely passed out asleep and didn’t even budge when I went up to them. I wanted to just observe them and maybe take some photos without me in them. When I asked for my camera back, so that I could walk around and look at them myself, they guy looked seriously disgruntled about it. Oh well.

Big Yawn! Not even concerned I am back there cuddling.

Snoozing.

And that was that. For a little while longer, I walked around the rest of the park and observed the other enclosures, then I got to the back of the park where no one was, and then I got really repulsed and wanted to leave after that. Tiger Kingdom states that the reason they can have humans in with the tigers without drugging them, is because they are basically adolescents, and are generally safe to be around up until about 3 years old. These are basically giant domesticated house cats, but they are still tigers. Yes, they are hand reared and around humans their whole lives- but still tigers. So- where do the rest of the tigers go once they are older than 3? Well- to the cages in the back naturally. 3 huge tigers to each small cage. Enough room to move around, a table to lay on, but not much more than that. There was also an African Lion there and a white Bengal tiger. There was a small grassy area in the middle of all these cages. I asked the ladies that worked there if the tigers in the back cages get to roam around ever, and she said “Sometimes we let them out.” Sometimes?!?! Then I asked if they get to go to a larger park when they are older, and she said “Well no, but they are working on a park they can roam around in. The government doesn’t allow us to release them to the wild.”

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Ugh. Just ugh. It’s a sad life. A breeding program just for tourism. Yeah tigers are endangered so perhaps a breeding program would be a good thing, but these tigers never see life outside this park. So who cares about a breeding program for captive tigers?

One of the tigers cooling off in a mini pool.

One of the tigers cooling off in a mini pool.

Final Thoughts:

  • The babies are separated from their mothers at a very young age.
  • The tigers are kept in cages their entire lives, or so it seems.
  • There is a lot of money to be made from this. There are a lot of tourists there. That means this place will stay in operation.
  • Aside from being in cages their whole lives, the tigers don’t have such a bad life. They behave like house cats (who are also kept in captivity if you think about it). They get fed a lot, they get to nap a lot, they get to be petted by people a lot, they get to play a lot. It’s all they’ve ever known really.
  • Let’s just be clear- I LOVED the baby tiger experience. I kinda hate how much I loved it. I think it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see the tigers in such close proximity, and that was really cool, but I am also a bit disgusted by the whole experience. I am not really sure how to feel about my visit there. It started off fun, but then reality quickly set in. But like I said, I needed to see it for myself, and perhaps now I can help educate people on how this place really works.

How do you feel about animal tourism? Do you have any other points to make about places like this?

 

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2 responses to “The Low-Down on Thailand’s Tiger Kingdom

  1. I completely understand your desire to go and see the tigers – I mean look at them. They’re just adorable! The tiny cubs would have been okay for you to play and take photos with but I have to say that bigger tigers would not normally let you near them and still be as docile as that. I’m not saying I’m an expert at all but I’ve done volunteer work with big cats in South Africa and I volunteer at London Zoo every week now. Even at 5 months when they’re still small, cubs can bruise you just by jumping up and playing with you. Lions are a lot easier to tame and a lot closer to the domestic house cat but tigers are just far too unpredictable and strong. Whether they drug them or not, I don’t know. Maybe they’re just so bored and exhausted of being constantly petted by tourists that they don’t have the energy to get up and do anything. It’s so sad to see the bigger tigers cramped up in that tiny horrible cage. Hopefully your experience will help others to see that these aren’t the best places for the animals’ welfare 😦

    • Thanks Ayla! That’s an interesting perspective since you have worked with them. The place is confusing and contradictory! I would not go to one of these places again, it was just too sad feeling at the end of the day but I know a lot of people don’t even think about the same kinds of things that I was thinking about while I was there.

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