My children love animals, every animal, even the icky ones most people avoid. They got their passion from me. Ever since I was a kid I felt the same way, rescuing one pathetic or "icky" animal after another. I just can't help myself! Before we came to Thailand, we had already seen all the tiger experience places online and although I was skeptical, the kids immediately put it on their bucket lists.
We did loads of research about it and discovered that their were 2 options in Thailand to have an up-close tiger experience. One was near Bangkok, Tiger Temple, and the is other closer to Chiang Mai, Tiger Kingdom. I read several blog posts, visited the sites for the temple and kingdom, and watched some Youtube clips. What I found, was a lot of conflicting information, so we concluded that the only way to really know was to see it for ourselves.
We decided that Tiger Kingdom was the one to visit. Tiger Temple seemed less kind to the animals and some bloggers commented that the tigers seemed drugged -- although I can't confirm it, that was certainly not something we wanted to support. It also was more expensive to get in.
When we got to Chiang Mai, it was on top of the kids list of something to do. So within the first week we were off to Tiger Kingdom.
Tigers are officially on the endangered list having lost over 93% of their range in the world and with their population dropping to under 4,000 in the wild. Tiger Kingdom is, first and foremost, an animal encounter center but they also rescue injured tigers (and 1 crazy lion named Johnny Depp). They also actively breed them to increase population. I tried to inquire, but it was unclear as to if they reenter the tigers to the wild or not. It seems that they do not!
Tiger Kingdom is located just outside of Chiang Mai. We took a song thaew (taxi truck with bench seats in the back) 20 minutes to the park and it cost about $15 round trip. The driver waited for us at the park. We were greeted by an English-speaking Thai who helped us decide which package to partake in.
The kids could only go in with the smallest tigers, those 1-2 months old. My oldest son, being bigger than me at 12, was allowed to go in with the medium tigers. I was a bit nervous for him so I joined him as well. The cost was quite reasonable, in my opinion, and we were made to feel welcome throughout the park. We moved around and chose for ourselves which enclosure to go in. It cost $90 for all 4 of us to play with the smallest (1-2 months) and for 2 of us to hang out with the medium (6-9 months) tigers. It also enabled us to tour around the entire grounds and spend several hours watching these beautiful big cats.
Like I said before, I was really skeptical about how these big cats were being treated. Whenever we go to a zoo, I feel terrible by the time I leave and vow to never go back. But because the kids adore animals, we do end up at some type of zoo every now and again. I really took every opportunity to watch the behavior of the tigers, the interaction with the staff, and observe the conditions in which they are placed. I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw!
Probably the thing heard most often in blog posts and Youtube videos is; "those tigers are so sleepy, they are clearly drugged". Well, I went into this looking for the "over the top sleepy" tigers, and we saw NONE! There were some tigers sleeping -- like all cats do -- but 5 minutes later they would be awake and playing. They looked nothing like some of the videos of tigers I saw at the Tiger Temple. These cats were happy, playing, well-fed and affectionate with their trainers. Tigers have better vision at night, it is cooler at night, and honestly have you ever seen a cat that didn't sleep at least 2/3 of the day away?
I did not see any sign of abuse or drugging what so ever. The smallest cats were reprimanded at times for biting. Although it broke my heart, it was obvious that by the time they get just a few months older biting would be a huge problem. In a setting like this I firmly believe they are doing the absolute best for these tigers. Short of releasing them, which is debatable if it is even possible, they are doing the best they possibly can and these cats are happy!
The thing that made me most happy was the fact that the tigers were so content and at peace. When they are sad, lacking enough space to roam, or under stimulated, they pace. I have seen that in nearly every other tiger I have witnessed in captivity and it is hard to watch. It is so obvious that they are far outside their comfort zone, but NOT at Tiger Kingdom. I did not see a single tiger pacing in the 4+ hours that we were there. That seemed like a pretty good sign that they were rather content.
The kids and I had a great time. I admit I was nervous going in with the medium, 6-9 month, cats but once inside the enclosure with them, there was an overwhelming sense of calm. I felt no aggression at all. My only complaint is that it didn't feel like enough time with the animals, but there were many people waiting and of course everyone needs to have their "turn". Each person, or group of people get around 15 minutes with each size tiger that they signed up for. Believe me this is NOT enough time, not when you are enjoying a cuddle with this......
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