Friends seem disappointed when I admit to skipping out on Thailand’s famed Tiger parks, or interactive zoos where tourists can safely cuddle up to entire tiger families. The photos are pretty cute, and there were plenty of times when I was certainly tempted. Now back in the US, I’ve become determined to uncover the truth about Tiger Temple, Tiger Kingdom, and all of the other hotspots for tiger-petting that I missed. What’s the catch? How are these trainers keeping the usually dangerous animals docile, unfazed by swarms of tourists creeping close for the perfect photo op? Are tigers truly safer in captivity, away from dangers of deforestation and poaching, or is this another case of animal exploitation for tourist dollars?
Having visited Argentina’s Zoo Lujan petting zoo in 2007, I can tell you that posing with a tiger is truly a thrill. I was giggling away with my camera, and I admit that the photos from that day at the “zoo” are some of my most unique. They certainly evoked the most questions. Of course I second guessed the sincerity of the zoo’s mission statement, especially when the teenage zookeepers insisted that the tigers (many of them full grown males) were not drugged, but “raised with love.”
One of Thailand’s parks in particular has caught the attention of conscious travelers hoping to play with tigers and also help them. Animal conservation groups and concerned travelers, on the other hand, are trying to bring down Tiger Temple for good.
Just outside of Bangkok, Tiger Temple is the oldest Buddhist school and forest temple in Western Thailand. It’s a sanctuary that began caring for tiger cubs whose mothers had been killed, and they begin taming the animals starting at just three weeks. Their tiger population continued to grow through rescue missions and on-site breeding and now there are over 90. The entrance fee is about $20, and for $30 you can take a photo with one.
The park’s mission is to raise enough tigers to eventually begin releasing them into Thailand’s forests, and to also educate people on deforestation and poaching, but many animal activists groups and confused visitors find this suspicious. Care for the Wild International claims that the Tiger Temple is involved with animal trafficking, and other critics suggest that sedatives and abuse are to blame for the their suspiciously calm temperaments. The monks in charge continue to insist that the animals are safer there; that Tiger Temple is a sanctuary that keeps them healthy and safe.
A trip to Thailand’s zoos, parks, and interactive animal attractions are tempting, but don’t forget to do your research. Have any of you visited Tiger parks in Thailand? Do you have a different opinion?
Here are some fabulous resources to check out before signing up for an animal tour in Thailand, or anywhere else in the world!