As our tour bus drew nearer the Tiger Temple, our guide briefed us on the do’s and dont’s of interacting with the big cats.
“Any necklaces must be removed. Red clothing aggravates the tigers so it is not allowed, and because you are visiting a Buddhist monastery, out of respect for the monks who operate the sanctuary, your clothing must cover your upper arms and knees. And absolutely no sunglasses are allowed!”
“What about regular glasses?”I asked, since I don’t see well without mine.
He assured me that regular glasses were OK, explaining that the tigers see themselves reflected in the mirrored surface of sunglasses and, thinking it is another cat, they attack or swipe playfully. Despite his assurances, I walked the searing, rock-strewn path to the abandoned quarry with trepidation but I had come to Kanchanaburi province in Thailand to pet tigers and nothing was going to stop me.
In 1999, residents of the province just west of Bangkok found an abandoned tiger cub. Speculating that poachers had killed the mother, they brought the baby to the monks at Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Buddhist temple that had been opened five years earlier as a forest temple and sanctuary for wild animals. That first cub died, but two more quickly followed, along with a bear, deer, camel, and water buffalo, among a variety of other animals. Gradually the menagerie grew and by the time I visited in March 2011, the temple was caring for 49 tigers.
Each day a number of the resident tigers are led to an on-site quarry, where they lie in the shade as tourists are led around the enclosure and allowed to pet them. I stood in line, listening to the cautions of the volunteers and staff who work at the Tiger Temple. We could not take any cameras or bags into the quarry. Jackets must be removed. And we must completely obey the guides who would lead us around by the hand and instruct us where to kneel and what to do with each tiger. As they ticked through their list, I counted a dozen tigers scattered around the compound. Each lay beneath a beach umbrella for shade in the mid-afternoon heat, secured by a single length of chain attached to neck collars. Some dozed while others rolled playfully on their backs, sending billows of ocher dust into the air. Every so often one of the tigers would raise its head and open its mouth, a sign for a volunteer to squirt a stream water from a squeeze bottle into its mouth.
Before long it was my turn. One guide commandeered my camera while the other slowly led me by the hand past the first tiger, motioned for me to kneel behind it, and demonstrated where I should pet it. Tentatively, I reached out and stroked the haunches of the magnificent feline. Acutely aware that it could take me out with one swipe of a deadly paw, I flinched when the tiger twitched and quickly drew my hand away, but the allure of actually petting a wild tiger was too powerful and I reached back to stroke the soft, sleek fur. Around the old quarry I circuited, sometimes kneeling, sometimes squatting next to cats, at one point even reclining between two cats perched on boulders, entranced but never letting down my guard for an instant.
Although one animal rights organization has charged that “animal welfare problems at the Tiger Temple are severe and include poor accommodation, lack of appropriate environments and veterinary care, and physical abuse of the tigers to make them compliant for visiting tourists,” I saw absolutely no evidence of this. The tigers seemed content to allow human interaction and I didn’t feel they were drugged; they moved lazily but no differently than tigers I have seen during the heat of the day in zoos all over the world and they are rotated so that no one cat is forced to engage with humans on a daily basis. Outside of the quarry, in a new enclosure, staff members waded in the moat with other tigers, playing tug-o-war with a toy attached to a broom handle. When the game was over the employees turned their backs and walked away, stopping every few feet to turn around and chastise one of the cats that followed, ordering it to sit. Astonishingly, the tiger complied.
Since it costs approximately $100 per day to feed each tiger, monks at the Tiger Temple solicit volunteers to work on site. Volunteers must be willing to donate a minimum of two weeks, work six days a week, and attend daily meditation ceremonies with the monks. Room and board is provided and a stipend of 700 Baht (about $24 US) is paid to each volunteer on his or her day off, in the event that they wish to spend a night in the nearby town. For more information on volunteering, refer to the Tiger Temple volunteer information page.
In the late afternoon, just before our group was scheduled to leave, I happened upon a small pavilion where another cub lounged. At four months old it was the size of a medium size dog and not nearly as intimidating as the mature tigers. Crouching down, I stroked its back and scratched its head and ears. I swear it purred.