Before I left England I was adamant that a day trip to Chiang Mai’s Tiger Kingdom was not something that would be on my agenda whist travelling. The draw of seeing a tiger up close and personal is one I could understand fully, but what I failed to fathom was how people could support these types of facilities. Any establishment that turns a profit out of luring tourists in by holding wild animals captive is interested in one thing and one thing only, money. Not tigers. So I made a promise with myself that I wouldn’t be a part of it.
I’m ashamed to say that I broke that promise. Arriving at our hostel in Chiang Mai we were instantly met with an abundance of flyers for every possible tour and attraction in the city, one being Tiger Kingdom. The flyer looked impressive – boasting their care and support for wildlife and conservation. The hostel even had posters dotted around with lengthy explanations in response to the common hear say that the tigers at Tiger Kingdom are drugged and thus should be well avoided if you have an ounce of humanity.
According to these convincing articles Tiger Kingdom are the good guys; it’s Tiger Temple you need to watch out for. There the tigers are mistreated, drugged and displayed for your amusement. At Tiger Kingdom they are simply well fed and sleepy, making them perfectly safe to pose with. They even reference supposed research into the hunting habits of these wild cats during daylight hours. Basically the story goes that the tigers need not be a concern to you because one, they’re fed well and two during the heat of the day the tigers become too lazy to seek out prey. Looking back it’s ridiculous that I fell for it so easily. But the copious articles, information supporting the place and the fact a group from our hostel wanted to go meant that I too went along for the ride.
Arriving at Tiger Kingdom is like turning up to a theme park; there’s a buoyant feel about the place, there are gift shops full of cute cuddly tiger toys and a photographer to capture your special moment with the cats. It works like this: You pick from what I can only describe as a pre set menu as to which tigers you want to rub shoulders with, then you pay your money and off you go.
We were then led to caged enclosures where groups of four at a time can visit with the animals. Docile and mostly inactive until prodded with a stick these enormous tigers raise immediate alarm bells. While documentation of abuse at Tiger Kingdom has not yet come to light the training methods used at similar facilities have come under scrutiny.
An investigation into Tiger Temple found that the tigers there were often beaten and deprived of food and water to reinforce the dominance of their trainers. Trainers who carry sticks to ‘tame’ animals do so to encourage submissive behaviours by the association of pain. It’s hard to tell what really goes on behind closed doors, but a tourist trap that operates under the guise of a sanctuary or rescue centre for wild animals without any future plan to release these animals back into the wild should be avoided. Tigers that have been raised by humans and are domesticated enough to interact with tourists will never be fit to survive in their natural habitat.
Here’s what I do know…tigers are a highly endangered species with only a few now existing in their natural habitats. They are also highly dangerous. With their considerable stance and sizeable teeth these wild animals are a powerful force to be reckoned with, not a ‘selfie’ accessory. Think about it, would you approach a tiger in the wild? My guess is no. But you can, and given the chance you probably will, pose along side a fully-grown male while it sits behind bars flanked my two Thai men baring bamboo canes as a means of defence. Seems legit. I’ve done it and I lived to tell the tale.
But despite the smiles in these pictures it’s not a tale I’m proud of. So while it might seem cute, might seem brave and even cool to get your photo taken with a tiger, I urge you, please reconsider. Now that you have learnt the truth it’s your job to share my story. Get the word out there, because Tiger Kingdom isn’t a sanctuary at all – it’s a shocking spectacle that left a bad taste in my mouth and without gullible tourists like myself these places won’t exist!
Words By Sophie Maguire