In Western Thailand along the border of Myanmar is one of Thailand’s most controversial attractions: the Tiger Temple. Run by an order of Buddhist monks, visitors can mingle with the tigers up close and personal.
Stepping into the reserve conjured a mixture of feelings, from excitement to anxiousness. No matter how well fed a tiger may be, one can’t help but shake the feeling that something could go terribly, violently wrong. But strangely, nothing ever does.
After a visit to a cobra show not long before, I was on my guard against animal cruelty. Having done some research before visiting the temple, I had read about allegations of abuse, illegal tiger trading, and profiteering. I had my guard up, not only against mauling tigers, but felt that I should also be on the lookout for any signs of mistreatment.
After paying the entrance fee of about $10 USD, there’s a short walk from the gate to the area where the tigers are kept. Under the oppressively hot sun, even in mid-January, the walk was exhausting. But soon enough I found myself approaching a small group of monks and tourists, who were taking photos with a young tiger. I was beckoned over and had my photo taken lying next to it. The tiger was fairly docile for the most part, though the photos had to be stopped momentarily as he, or she became a bit excited. She let out a roar that immediately reminded everyone that although she was only a cub, she could tear us all to pieces at a moment’s notice.
The reserve is quite large. I spent an hour or so wandering amongst water buffalo, deer, and tigers being walked around by volunteers. At one point, a girl with a tiger stopped me and asked if I would like to take one of the tigers for a walk. She handed me the lead. Sure. Why not? What could possibly go wrong?
Holding the lead of an adult tiger is not exactly a tranquil experience. It’s not like walking a dog, I told myself. You can’t pull it, or direct it. It walks you. And then my blood ran cold. The tiger had spotted something she was acutely interested in. Ears back, she crouched into the universally known pouncing position. It took me a moment to realize what she was fixated on: a boar had wandered into the area, about fifty feet away. Nervously, I turned to the volunteer, who quickly took the leash back. She gave it a quick jerk, and the tiger became suddenly uninterested in the boar.
I didn’t end up seeing any signs of abuse at Tiger Temple. The animals all looked well fed, and reasonably content. Some of the tigers were chained on rather short chains, likely because a tiger with a long leash is significantly more of a threat.
It comes down to this: should tigers be in this environment in the first place? As the story goes, back in 1999, the abbot of the temple was given a small tiger cub who had been found injured in the wild. The abbot took care of the young cub, nursing it back to health. But a tiger raised in captivity cannot be released, so she stayed.
Word spread about the tiger, and soon, others were being brought back to the temple. Today, the tiger temple is home to over 100 tigers, some of whom were born on the reserve. Whereas tigers are a severely endangered species, the argument can be made that this is a benefit to the preservation of the species.
In 2012 the BBC sent a reporter to the Tiger Temple who likewise couldn’t find any signs of abuse:
Still, groups like Care for the Wild International insist that the temple is not keeping the best interest of the tigers at heart. Running a reserve as a tourist attraction certainly sounds suspicious, although the monastery insist that it is not-for-profit and that all the money collected goes toward keeping the sanctuary running. But a report released by the organization compiled two years of investigation and made several disturbing observations.
Yet ABC news launched an investigation in which they found no evidence of wrongdoing. They spoke with an an American law student who had spent seven months at the temple as a volunteer. As she told ABC, “I haven’t seen anything that I don’t agree with, and I am very big on animal rights. These tigers are really happy and you can see that in their interactions with people.” Though ABC’s investigation was not nearly as exhaustive as that of Care for the Wild International, the volunteers who work there all seem to agree that the tigers are well cared for.
Robyn Larsen, a friend of mine who hails from Idaho, spent several months working as a volunteer at Tiger Temple and had a firsthand look. Here’s what she had to say:
There’s a lot of negative talk and I wonder if these people have ever been there. There was also a very famous vet from Australia–the Bondi Vet–who came while I was there. He spent the whole day there and had access everywhere he wanted to go and he also said he found no evidence of wrong doing. Also, the tigers are not in the areas that the tourists see them all the time on short chains. They are just there for a few hours while they nap and people pet them–and that’s only a few of the tigers that don’t mind/like being with the tourists. The rest of the time they are back in their enclosures, which you can see by walking on a walkway that goes above the cages, but a lot of tourists don’t make it up to that part. They are happy, comfortable and spoiled. They are used to having people around them and the staff takes every precaution to make sure it is safe–like when the cub got more playful so they stopped letting people get too close. The temple also does A LOT for the area around the temple. The temple vet, staff, and often vet student volunteers from all over the world go and give vaccinations to pets in nearby communities and the temple does a lot of other things for the people in the area, in addition to taking care of the tigers and all the other animals on the temple grounds. I could talk forever about the temple and how great it is…
Robyn cites the following video as an accurate representation of life volunteering at Tiger Temple:
What do you think? If you have thoughts on Thailand’s Tiger Temple, leave them in the comments below.
If you’re interested in volunteering at the temple, you can find volunteer information here.