Best Birthday Ever: Tiger Temple

With my birthday just a week away, I can’t help but remember what was possibly the best birthday present I’ve ever gotten…

Samut Sakhon, Thailand: October 2010

A few weeks ago (okay, well, this post is seriously belated, so make that one month ago**), David started asking me what I wanted for my birthday. I told him that instead of a physical present, I’d rather he spent the money on the two of us having an adventure of some sort. He asked what kind of adventure, and I half-jokingly replied, “We could pet some tigers.”

You see, that sort of activity isn’t that out of the ordinary in Thailand. You can handle a python at the zoo, feed an elephant on your way home from school, and keep exotic birds for pets with no problem. So petting/cuddling a tiger sounded doable. And, after a bit of research, we found it was totally doable. All we had to do was navigate the way to Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua, or, as it is more commonly referred to, Temple of Tigers.

After a hazardous journey involving the standard one train, one taxi, a bus, a bus that took us back after the first bus took us too far, and the back of a pickup truck, we made it to the temple. I’ll admit, I was convinced the whole way up that the temple was going to be a ruse. Petting tigers? For real?

Tigers have long fascinated me. As a child, frequent trips to the San Francisco Zoo’s Lion House (which, despite the name, also housed the tigers and the leopards) led to an early appreciation of these big cats up close. At the Lion House, visitors to the Zoo were allowed to watch as five feet away, the big cats were fed. To be there, and hear the the warehouse-sized building fill with the rumbles and roars of the hungry cats was really a remarkable experience, and I remember one of my first written stories being about the lives of the big cats that lived in the zoo (I think I was about seven?). I knew that regardless of what the temple might say about these tigers being safe around humans, they were still wild animals. And their wildness both appealed to and terrified me.

The tigers spend every afternoon in what is referred to as Tiger Canyon—a narrow gorge that contains several tall, mushroom-ish umbrellas, a large lagoon, and (give or take) twenty full grown tigers. As we approached, we were enthusiastically greeted by an English-speaking volunteer, who told us that for a mere 1000 baht we could get our picture made with the largest tiger’s head in our lap. My heart sank. Though the trip was David’s birthday gift for me, we were already running tight on money, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask for extra things. If we had to pay for all of these individual experiences, the price tag was going to be much higher than anticipated. But our jolly volunteer tacked on an ending sentence that spun my mood around. We could enter the canyon, one at a time, and have other volunteers take our pictures with all of the big cats, for free. A few minutes later, a small Thai man approached us. Who wanted to go first? David looked uneasy, and though my heart was pumping wildly, I handed the man my camera and took my first steps into the canyon.

The reviews of the Tiger Temple are widely varied, in every medium. Just a sampling from includes:

(1 star) Do Not Support Cruelty to Animals! Animals are drugged and when not out, are in small inhumane cages. Do not spend your dollars to support people like this . Put the tigers in a refuge and stop making money off of wild animals . Get a real job !

(5 stars) Best Day of My Life!! Go early! We took 2 of the biggest tigers for a walk to the quarry they seemed quite docile, i wondered if they were drugged, but when they were let off the leads with another 10 tigers, and you watch them bound down to the water and play, you see their awesome speed and power and know they are not drugged.

Time Magazine also ran a story about the temple (you can find it here) A lot of Westerners don’t buy the no-drug aspect, and many question whether taking in these cubs, whose parents were killed by poachers, is a good move or not. They believe that by making the tigers accessible, the Temple is playing down the wild animals in the wild aspect and playing up the positive side of keeping animals in domesticated environments. I found it to be very similar to the arguments against zoos. While I hear and understand those arguments, I have found that there is something to be said, too, for having the opportunity to be close and see these creatures while there are still some in the world. The fact that whole species of tigers have become extinct in my lifetime is a troubling one, and the idea that my children might not ever know a world where there are tigers in the wild is upsetting. But would I care about this so deeply had I not had the chance to form a bond (if an abstract one) with tigers at the zoo as a child?

I still can’t believe how close I was to those animals. They were gigantic—their paws alone were the size of my face, and the breath they snorted was hot and wet. The largest one weighed over 800 lbs, but was comically reclined on his back with his legs spread wide open (just like my housecat!). When I sat to have my picture taken with him, the volunteer mimed pushing the tiger’s leg over. “Go. Just push. Push. PUSH!” I feebly patted the tiger’s leg in the direction I wanted it to go. Sighing, the volunteer stepped up, and heaved the leg over. The big guy raised his massive head, took me in, and sighing, rolled over. The shutter snapped. When I looked at the picture again I can see on my face equal parts amazement, anxiety, and incredulity…the three words that pretty much sum up that trip.