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02.06.16 EDIT: I will keep this article running until I decide what to do with it. A horrific discovery was recently found at this temple by the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (a foundation I did some work with a few years ago) – they are in the process of shutting this place down, and found dozens of deceased, frozen animals (including tiger cubs) in a freezer. Needless to say, some bitter truths about this establishment have now come to light. You can find the CNN article here.

2015 EDIT: Please note that this article was written before I had started working with the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand. At this point of my journey my words were relatively naive – the only information I had been given about this particular temple was the money-driven propaganda my travel agent had provided me with before I embarked on my travels.
In saying this, I am more aware than many when it comes to animal welfare, and I ALWAYS think twice before supporting something I am unsure of. But considering my travel agent knew me personally and the work that I do, I allowed myself to believe that she would only recommend travel activities that would allow me to support positive animal treatment and conservation ventures. I was wrong.

Written on Friday the 31st May 2013.
Today, among other things, my particular tour included a visit to the renowned “Tiger Temple”. I had been looking forward to this as an opportunity to learn more about the way tigers and other species are viewed in Thailand. Probably as in the USA with wolves, some people may care greatly about their conservation, while others just couldn’t care less. All I knew about today’s visit was that tourists would be welcome to attend the tigers’ afternoon “exercise” session – I wanted to glean all I could from the trip and was hoping to speak to someone about how the animals are actually looked after and regarded, since I have heard some very mixed reviews of this particular temple.

It was a fairly long journey from Bangkok, but certainly enjoyable. It has been great being able to zip through the streets, feeling immersed in the atmosphere but in a totally private manner. Bangkok is colourful. It is vibrant. Yes, alright, the streets aren’t clean and there is no way I would ever move here and call this city a permanent home, but people smile, they walk and speak with purpose and I’m glad I spent some time here before heading away to the elephant sanctuary.

After some morning stops (which included getting me to a department store so I could buy a camera – I was near distraught this morning on my way out of the hotel to discover the camera I had purchased only a couple of months ago was malfunctioning out of my control!) the driver escorted me, a couple (also from Auckland, New Zealand!) and our guide up to the dusty Tiger Temple. The day so far had incorporated a mixture of thought-provoking and sad destinations – I wasn’t sure if I should next be expecting a quiet, spiritual experience or something else.

The Tiger Temple's entrance gateThe entrance to the Tiger Temple is obvious and absolutely screams ‘tourist’ all over. I did raise an eyebrow at the huge, bright, cartoon-like gaping tiger mouth that stands above the road. Earlier in the day at a marketplace our guide had pointed out a beautiful five-month-old leopard cub chained to a wooden table that was available for photos. The guide had asked me if I was alright with it – you can probably imagine that I wasn’t alright with it, but I said I didn’t know much about the situation and that I would go over for a visit. We were told the gorgeous cub, Mocha, belongs to a zoo and will grow up there – it is a rescued animal and will have a great life. Was this a genuine guarantee? I don’t wish to comment. It was hard to sit next to Mocha and see the cub hit over the head every time it got close to swiping someone playfully – the hits weren’t hard, mind you, but it was enough for me to know full well that this animal was here purely for the entertainment of humans. I haven’t been to the zoo Mocha belongs to and it’s probably good for me not to go, even though Mocha’s handler exclaimed “You love animals! You good with animals!” and handed me their brochure.

Hence, after that experience I was feeling more skeptical than I originally may have been about the Tiger Temple. I tried not to think too hard about it, and instead concentrated on the surroundings.
The setting was really a huge contrast to Bangkok city. The soil was red, the dirt road was wide and lined with passionate Flame of the Forest trees. The vegetation, red brick walls and deep burgundy clay created a unique and somehow enticing scenery. We saw no one heading up to the Temple, so I didn’t know what to expect in regards to tourist density.

When we arrived at the carpark near the ticket booth, there were many shuttle buses and vans. There were different things for sale – tigers were depicted as positive entities on merchandise, though I didn’t see anything at all about tiger conservation. From these initial observations it absolutely seemed like just another tourist trap.
After signing an agreement acknowledging we were responsible for our own actions and understood that the Temple accepted no liability for any outcomes, we headed through another gate and up a long path. There were small buildings here and there, with English-written “Ways of Peace” tablets. I saw pigs and cows roaming in the dust – they could obviously go where they pleased.
We finally approached an open area where monks and Tiger Temple staff members were walking tigers, or had them chained to a spot in the ground. There were so many tourists, and we were quickly ushered into a single-file line. Tigers were in close reach, just sitting there peacefully. I didn’t realise we would be getting so close to them like this.

English-speaking volunteers were hurrying us forward, keeping us in line and speeding things along. I didn’t quite know what was happening at first, but I soon realised that we were walking in a line behind a tiger. One by one, as you arrived at the front of the line, a staff member would take your camera and take a photo of you near the tiger. Once you had your photo they passed your camera back and you were moved to the back of the line. People were not allowed to take their own photos, and those who thought they would ignore the rules and walk away from the group or approach the tiger themselves were quickly scolded away. I was reminded of the White Wolf Sanctuary, how despite the fact people got to touch and be close to the animals within reason, some would still blatantly test the rules.

"Walking a tiger"

Waiting to enter the Canyon

Waiting to enter the Canyon

We followed the tiger down to the area known as “Tiger Canyon”, which was self-explanatory. There were high canyon walls along the sides, and an area full of tigers chained to the ground, dozing lazily. Just above the bottom of the canyon was a metal fence, not tall enough to keep tigers out so it was obviously for the tourists. We were encouraged to sit behind it, while an Australian staff member told us some facts about the tigers and welcomed questions. While it was an obvious tourist destination, the local and foreign staff did not treat visitors in the precious-cuddly-warm manner; they were straight up – you get a photo, then it’s someone else’s turn. It was the only way to manage such a massive group, which was apparently nothing because it is not the high season.

The Aussie speaker gave us some verbal information about the Tiger Temple and how it operates (e.g. tigers are not desexed so physical separation is used to discourage breeding, but if procreation happens then it happens), but I heard nothing about the status of tigers in Thailand or Asia as a whole, their conservation, poaching and other dangers, what we could do to help etc. It was VERY obvious that the tourists for the most part were not interested in any of the information we were listening to – it seemed that they were just itching to get out and touch another tiger. I saw this as a huge missed opportunity though – the Tiger Temple has a huge group of tourists corralled in this small area daily; would they not embrace this as a chance to drill some conservation messages into the crowd?

Staff members and tourists alike crowd the Tiger Canyon

Staff members and tourists alike crowd the Tiger Canyon

Every time a tiger was walked into the canyon, followed by a line of tourists, our group of visitors would be asked to stand and face the tiger as it walked. There were two rules: don’t stand in front of a tiger, and don’t turn your back to a tiger. The last tourist attacked by one of the Temple’s animals had ignored both of those rules and receive ten stitches thanks to a tiger cub. To be honest I’m amazed there aren’t more injuries (apparently that was the only tourist injury in the last year) – you can’t tell me that any individual tiger is domesticated, so to have such a high volume of tourists through each year touching and patting the tigers without frequent incident is pretty impressive.

We were given different options – you could pay to have a ‘special’ group-photo taken where one person can sit with a tiger’s head in their lap, or you could line up to have the free photos. I wasn’t bothered with the ‘special’ shot so I lined up in the freeby aisle. As it began to rain we were warned that, since tigers adore water, rain and storms makes them go a little nuts – it would be too dangerous for us to be around them, and photos would be cancelled. There was a very audible sign of frustration from the crowd. I really was just standing around with a whole bunch of people who, it seemed to me, wanted new profile photos for their Facebook pages.

As I stepped to the front of the line a volunteer (another Aussie – it was nice to hear familiar accents!) kept watch of us and made sure each person had a camera out and ready. You weren’t allowed to take anything else with you (no bags etc. – “those things are tiger toys”). I tried to have a bit of a chat with her about her honest opinion of the temple, but I didn’t have much of a chance. As soon as a tiger was free I had several Thai lads jump in front of me to take my hand. The Aussie volunteer laughed and asked me to go with the least in-my-face fellow, for which I was grateful. He silently took my hand (and my camera) and led me up to the first tiger.
You are asked to kneel or sit down behind the tiger, and you can pat or stroke them while your photo is taken. Then you are stood up and taken to the next one. It was a quick affair, but time froze a little each time I came near one of these incredible beasts. The tigers are, of course, absolutely beautiful. Alarm bells were going off – each creature was chained by a fairly short leash to the ground. They seemed completely unaware of what was going on around them; they didn’t even stir when I touched them. The word ‘drugs’ kept popping into my head; were these animals drugged? Or just incredibly desensitized to people? Back when I worked in New Zealand as a zoo keeper I saw how much our animals got used to people, and that was without any hands-on contact whatsoever.

Suddenly  it was all over, and I was back behind that tiny metal fence. I watched the procession a little longer, flicked through my photos then built up the confidence to go and talk to the Australian guy who had been speaking to us at the beginning. I wanted to get a better feel for this place – at the moment it just looked to me like the poor leopard cub tied to the table in the marketplace for cheap thrills. I’m not saying it wasn’t amazing to get so close to these tigers and get a better appreciation of their utter beauty, but if I had the choice between animals being where they belonged as opposed to on the floor for human entertainment, you know what I’d pick.

So, I asked the staff member a few tough questions. I was straight up; I told him I had worked with large carnivores in the USA and at zoos back home, that I was heading to a rescue sanctuary in another part of Thailand for a couple of months, and that I wanted to truly know what the welfare was like at this ‘Tiger Temple’. I could tell he appreciated where I was coming from. He told me he could honestly say that the tigers were really well looked after. He said the Temple hired staff and brought in volunteers from all over the world – it was obvious that many of the locals had a different mindset about the animals (they would frequently pull the tigers’ tails or throw things), but there were enough passionate staff members at the centre to ensure the animals were deeply cared for. Not all of the animals were on display for the public – there were several from rescue situations that wouldn’t suit being on display like this, or some that just didn’t have the right temperament. Animals were there to live a stimulated life as free from stress as possible (but this, to me, was a bit contradictory; surely having hordes of humans touching you for hours was not stress-free). Apparently some had been rescued from the black market trade, where they would have ended up in ridiculous traditional medicines or “tiger wine” etc. The animals got exercised constantly throughout the day – visitors were allowed through only in the afternoons, which is when the tigers would be sleeping anyway (remember; they’re nocturnal). He told me they had large enclosures with hills, waterfalls, a variety of enrichment and staff making sure they were kept busy and entertained. Their diet was lacking, in my opinion – they were provided completely cooked chicken along with supplements to ensure they didn’t end up with nutritional deficiencies. Of course, red meat is very expensive in Thailand, so chicken was the most economical way to feed the tigers. It was cooked to reduce the chance of disease such as avian bird flu or salmonella. And he assured me that no, the tigers were not drugged to get them this subdued. He did mention, however, that the ‘zoo’ little leopard Mocha was from did drug their animals for photos. I wasn’t surprised in the least.

The Tiger Temple, being a Buddhist centre, is not given any government help – thus it relies completely on donations. It is the Buddhist way to accept any donation offered, which goes for tourists too – i.e. if 1,000 tourists turn up at the gate, 1,000 tourists must be allowed through. The entry price was nothing – about NZ$17 – but there are options to pay more for more involved experiences. This is not readily advertised, however, because of the accept-all-donations way of life (it would just be too much for loads of people constantly turning up).
I guess all-in-all I left feeling more positive about it after speaking to the passionate Aussie guide, but still didn’t think it was something I would ever choose to support had I known what was really involved. In my opinion NO wild animal should be treated as a pet or entertainment outlet. If tourists wish to see tigers, it should be in a conservation-related environment where at least the animals are not put on show for the purpose of human excitement. But then, I know the reality is that the general tourist is going to want to be able to tell their friends that when they went to Thailand they touched a tiger or rode an elephant, rather than simply seeing these creatures in a more natural environment. So, bottom line: Tiger Temple = tourist trap & money-maker? I’m going to say yes.
It makes me apprehensive to see what the elephant sanctuary will be like – but I only have until tomorrow to wait!