Animals Asia Thailand Travel Ethics

Lying with Tigers, my unethical tale of how I was mauled by a tiger in Chiang Mai

tiger chiang mai tiger kingdome

When I was last in Thailand, my travel friend had her heart set on seeing the tigers in Chiang Mai’s Tiger Kingdom. It was not high on my list, but since I had a massive list of things I wanted to see in Asia, like the Killing Fields, S-21, the DMZ in Vietnam and the Cu Chi tunnels, I figured I had better do what she wanted so that she would be more willing to accompany me on my historical and grim tours.

And tigers are beautiful so it wasn’t going to be so bad.

The last time I had been in Thailand, a friend and I had gone to see the elephants when we were in Chiang Mai. It wasn’t until I got there that I realised what we were doing wasn’t exciting and fun, and it wasn’t contributing to helping elephants, it was in fact a sinister money-making tourist attraction that made me feel sick to my stomach.

When it came to the tigers, I voiced my concerns but was assured that this tiger place was a good thing, that it was a sanctuary, and that it helped tigers from becoming extinct. It appeared to be a nice, ethical place, so I started to get excited.

When the day came, we hopped on a tuk-tuk and made our way to the Tiger Kingdom. From first impressions it appeared to be very large and professional. There were options for which size tigers you wanted to see. We decided to go for the big ones and the medium ones. It was tempting to see the babies, but they were the most expensive, so we figured seeing the medium and big ones would be enough.

Before we knew it, we were in an enclosure with two big tigers. Our guide told us one was named JLo, and the instructed us to lie down next to her for a photo. This seemed a little crazy. I had envisioned patting a tiger, but lying down next to one seemed a little risky.
The girls went first and I snapped away, happy to see that the tiger appeared to be asleep. Then when it was my turn, she shifted just as I was about to get beside her. The guide was telling me to lie next to her, but there wasn’t really much room, hence the awkward looking photos. I felt like a one night stand who can’t get the hint an jumps into bed with someone who is feigning sleep!

lying with the tiger, chiang mai

So awkward!

I have to admit, I was kind of uncomfortable. It was just really surreal to be lying pretty much on top of a large tiger. How did they not freak out that lots of annoying humans were violating their space? As much as I hated to admit it, the words sedated started to flash in my mind. Luckily, I was so distracted by trying to pose for the weirdest photo of my life and stroke an actual tiger, all while imagining it whipping around and biting my head off, that the guilt didn’t really get my full attention.

When we had gotten our photos with J Lo, he moved us on to another. We were told to stroke it, and I, unable to resist the photo op, took some close ups. Funny how despite my niggling worry about them being drugged, I was excited about getting such clear shots.

So beautiful

So beautiful

Next, we were brought outside and had to wait to see the smaller ones. We wandered around a little, and I couldn’t help but think that for a sanctuary, some of the areas were a little small.

We were shown where we were going to meet the other tigers and we stood at the fence, staring in at two extremely wild looking tigers. ‘They can’t be sedated,’ we said, laughing nervously. Suddenly, my concern for the ethics of sedating a wild animal was competing with concern for us about to enter an enclosed space with these two, who looked like they had been sniffing log-sized lines of cocaine. They zipped around, chasing eachother and mess fighting.

tiger kingdom in chiang mai

Play time

I smiled at how happy and playful they were. I felt better about being here. These guys looked like they were having a ball, albeit a slightly rough ball.

And then it was time for us to go in. A man came in with us, holding a thin stick with coloured bits of paper or plastic on one end, like a tiny tattered pom pom.
Our nerves disappeared as we took in just how beautiful these guys were. They were so freaking cute and gorgeous! This was great.

tiger tourism at the tiger kingdome in thailand

Gorgeous tiger at the Tiger Kingdom

The guy told us to sit behind one of them as he chewed on some leaves. I let the girls sit as I crouched in front, a grin stretching across my face at the joy of capturing such a gorgeous creature. I knew the girls would love these photos, and I concentrated on getting ones where they were smiling and looking relaxed.
Then I got distracted by the tiger and stretched a little closer. I wanted to get one of the tiger without the girls. I was getting there, and then he looked right into the lens. Bingo.

the tiger giving a dirty look

The money shot!

All of a sudden he lunged at me, at full speed. I had a moment of panic before the guy started to shout and distract him. My heart felt as though it was going to pump itself right out of my chest and I stumbled off my feet. I heard the girls screech. Next thing I knew, the man had gotten the tiger away, and I had a big scratch on my thigh.

Suddenly, the little guy didn’t seem so cute. We were all freaked out, but at the same time, I couldn’t help thinking that it was kind of cool that I had been mauled by a real tiger. It wasn’t a big gash, and there wasn’t any blood spilling out, save for a little along the scratch, but as the man gestured at me to come stand beside my attacker, who was now prowling menacingly up and down an elevated log, I felt really nervous.

after getting mauled, things got awkward

After getting mauled, things got awkward!

I stood beside him and attempted to touch him as my friend tried to take a photo. As you can see, I wasn’t coming across very photogenically, as I was picturing him going for my face this time. I had already pissed him off, so standing trying to grope him while the same camera was pointing at him didn’t seem like such a great idea. I wished I had just posed with my friends instead of trying to be a photographic Steve Irwin.

We stayed inside for a few more minutes, but each of us was a little scared. When the little guy went for me, the man didn’t really have a game plan, which meant that if the two of them decided they wanted to really go for us, it didn’t look like our guide would be much help. Especially as all he was armed with was the little stick.
Once we were out of the tiger’s turf, we laughed about it, and we were all a little giddy to have made it back to the other side of the fence.

All in all, it was a good experience. I got to hang out with one of the most beautiful beasts, I got a sweet memento in the form of a war wound, but looking back at the pictures today reminds me of the darker aspects of that day. Yes, much darker than a wild animal lunging at me, was the fact that those tigers, especially the bigger ones, were in captivity and likely under the influence of something, all so we can traipse in, cop a feel, and get our photos.

chiang mai tiger kingdom thailand

How ethical is tiger tourism?

 

Looking back now, I’m not sure the experience itself can distract me from the fact that we were contributing to the exploitation of a beautiful animal. All I can tell myself is that at least I am wiser now.

 

After writing this, I researched the Tiger Kingdom some more, and found some conflicting accounts.

 

The issues that arise from tiger tourism are that the animals are in captivity, and the tigers are allegedly drugged and usesd as a commodity. There is concern that the animals are being ‘farmed’ in large amounts, and that they are not happy, or, in some cases, mistreated.

The other side of the argument is that the tigers are an endangered species and at risk of being hunted in the wild. The people who work there care for animals and, as the tigers are raised in captivity and trained, they are used to human contact. They appear calm and sleepy because that is what tigers act like for much of the day.

Here are two different perspectives by other travel bloggers. If you are debating visiting, I advise you read both, including the comments, and then make an educated decision.

 

7 Reasons to Think Twice Before Visiting Thailand’s Tiger Temple

Turner Barr wrote on Matadornetwork.com about his experience at the Tiger Temple, which has a more negative reputation than the Tiger Kingdom. At first, I thought he was writing about the Tiger Kingdom, and I felt really sick, but reading the comments did give some alternative views from someone who worked there and wrote a long comment explaining how the place is run.

Hugs Not Drugs at Chiang Mai’s Tiger Kingdom

Jim Cheney of tripologist.com had a positive experience at Chiang Mai’s Tiger Kingdom, and felt the animals weren’t on drugs.

The comments are interesting here. One person claims they were bitten by one of the full-sized tigers and had to get stitches. While this was obviously a traumatic experience for the person, (and a lot more serious than my scratch!) I took this to be kind of a good thing, as if the tiger attacked a tourist who said they had done nothing wrong, it would lead me to believe that maybe they aren’t drugged.

What do you think about all this? It’s a tricky one!

 

 

 

 

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16 Comments

  • Reply
    maxwell ivey
    July 10, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    Hi Christine; I can tell that even before you went there you were torn about going because of your sincere feelings about the animal’s welfare. And it is a difficult issue. with the continuing expansion of our population and the deminishing habitats for animals like these gorgeous tigers the choice comes down to extinction or exploitation. The best I think we can hope for is to have these places run humanely. I come from a family of carnival owners. one year we toured our rides with a circus owner. He had a one ring circus featuring big cats. One night my brother went to dump the trash from the midway while they were feeding those cats. He said it made his blood run cold and his knees weak to watch and hear the ferocity that came into them when food was around. so even raised in captivity I don’t think these beasts are as civilized as advertised. glad you weren’t seriously hurt. take care out there my friend, Max
    maxwell ivey recently posted…Remembering when I decided on my new pathMy Profile

    • Reply
      Christine
      July 17, 2014 at 5:41 pm

      Thanks Max! Wow that must have been such an interesting childhood to be around carnivals, lucky you! Thanks for your comment 🙂

  • Reply
    Tim
    July 10, 2014 at 5:06 pm

    I understand your conflict Christine and to be honest it is a good thing that have the conflict in you; shows concern. I visited a similar tiger/photo/interaction exhibit in Australia many years ago and just like you was pulled both ways after I left. I will never do it again but glad I have the perspective to know that for sure.
    Tim recently posted…Happiness Sold HereMy Profile

    • Reply
      Christine
      July 17, 2014 at 5:43 pm

      Yeah, I won’t ever do it again, but at the same time, it was an interesting experience. At least now I won’t have to worry about making a decision like that again. 🙂

  • Reply
    Rachel of Hippie in Heels
    July 10, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    I really wish that it was a FOR SURE humane thing happening/saving the tigers and all that because i would LOVE to play with them and pet them… but I just don’t know what to believe so I haven’t gone and in Thailand I skipped it. When I first came to India I rode an elephant and then found out just this year how elephants in captivity in SE Asia and India are treated (basically they say any elephants that lets you ride him has been beaten really badly as a baby) and I still feel guilt over it. It’s hard to trust these places because even tourism companies promote them! Now they say you can’t swim with dolphins etc etc, it’s all bad it seems 🙁
    Rachel of Hippie in Heels recently posted…Old Goa Places to Visit (or to skip)My Profile

    • Reply
      Christine
      July 17, 2014 at 5:48 pm

      I know, it’s impossible to know what to believe. I rode an elephant in Thailand years ago and still feel guilty about it, it felt wrong, but when I discovered that they are usually beaten and terrified as babies, I felt even worse!
      Swimming with dolphins was my absolute dream as a child, but as you said, it’s probably really cruel, lile Seaworld! 🙁

  • Reply
    tore haaland
    July 12, 2014 at 6:08 am

    There is only one way to see wildlife: Doing it in the wild. As simple as that. Even the best of zoo’s are annimal prisons. Some are death camps. Have you seen a tiger, a bear, an eagle, an orca in a zoo……well you have techmically seen it…..outside its environment. Not behaving normally. Have you seen it in the wild-you often have a fantastic experience-a real experience- that is actually worth something.

    • Reply
      Christine
      July 18, 2014 at 9:59 pm

      Yeah, you’re right. The best way to see an animal is definitely in the wild!

  • Reply
    Heather @ TravelingSaurus
    July 15, 2014 at 2:53 am

    We’re headed to Chiang Mai this September, and I was curious what your impression was of seeing the tigers. Thanks for your balanced review–I personally think sometimes its really hard to know what goes on behind the scenes. Your pictures of the little ones are incredible!
    Heather @ TravelingSaurus recently posted…Downsides of Part-Time Travel: Five Things I Think I’m MissingMy Profile

    • Reply
      Christine
      July 18, 2014 at 10:01 pm

      Im glad you found it useful Heather! Thanks 🙂

  • Reply
    Jo @ MigratingBird
    September 24, 2014 at 1:59 am

    I visited the same place in Chiang Mai and was equally conflicted. I still don’t know what to think about it. I really enjoyed interacting with the tigers and playing with the babies was absolutely adorable. However, there is always the issue of drugging and taking perfectly healthy animals out of the wild to be trained into pets.

    My friend was bitten on the boob by one of the eight month old ones. She was just stroking its head and it clamped on. I shouldn’t laugh, but she wasn’t hurt and her face was a picture.
    Jo @ MigratingBird recently posted…San Blas Adventure – A Photo Essay of ParadiseMy Profile

    • Reply
      Christine
      October 2, 2014 at 8:39 pm

      I had to laugh reading that! Getting bitten on the boob is a much better story than a scratch on the leg! 🙂

  • Reply
    tore haaland
    October 5, 2014 at 3:05 am

    Behind the scenes in places holding wild animals just for fun-there is always something bad in it. One should stay away from them. All of them. Period. An exception is wildlife rescue centres-they have-or can have-a good foundation. Except from that-one can only really appreciate an animal in its free state. If you can’t do that/aren’t willing to do it-then enjoy them on TV and in books. As to tigersightings-i have an almost certain receipt of where and how to see them:

    http://theglobalexplorers.blogspot.com/2014/09/tiger-tiger-bandhavgahr-nationalpark.html

  • Reply
    Lynn A Girard
    June 9, 2015 at 3:24 am

    My husband & I visited Tiger Kingdom when we were in Chiang Mai for our honeymoon. I have to admit, I was a little nervous that the animals were not going to be treated well but once we were there we were both impressed by the quality that we did see.

    For all those that claim that the tigers are drugged, have you ever spent a day with a house cat? I have a cat & she sleeps most of the day, it’s just how the animals are.

    Check our our blog post about our experience at Tiger Kingdom:
    http://moneyleftfortravel.com/tiger-kingdom-chiang-mai-thailand/

  • Reply
    Thailand - Chiang Mai (and Ethical Tourism) - Sun Diego Eats
    August 4, 2015 at 5:38 am

    […] in captivity that could explain why they are so comfortable around humans. Without being aware of the debate on the well-being of the animals we really enjoyed our experience here – despite one of the […]

  • Reply
    Chiang Mai, Thailand (and Ethical Tourism) - Sun Diego Eats
    October 26, 2015 at 4:29 pm

    […] in captivity that could explain why they are so comfortable around humans. Without being aware of the debate on the well-being of the animals we really enjoyed our experience here – despite one of the […]

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