My Experience at Tiger Kingdom
I volunteered at Thailands Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai for almost two months from August to September 2014. I worked seven days a week. I would arrive early morning together with the staff, and leave at the end of the day as the park had closed down.
Most of my time was spent with the big cats themselves along with the local staff. I spent a small amount of time working closeley with the parks veterinarian.
The Truth about Tiger Kingdom
There are NO DRUGS and I have witnesses NO ABUSE.
Tigers sleep 14-18 hours a day, in the wild.
That is natural. They come from a hot climate and are normally active during the cooler part of the day. Most tourists tend to visit parks and zoos during the midday sun when animals are dozing in the heat. In the wild big cats use a lot of energy when hunting. They don’t always catch their prey which means they sometimes only eat once a week. A meat diet builds strong muscle but does not offer a lasting supply of energy.
Think about it, do you have a house cat? Do they not spend most of its day laying around, then finally wake up for a short time to rush around the house to tear things off the shelves?
Don’t believe me? Keep reading and find out ALL the details yourself.
Tiger Temple and Tiger Kingdom – two very different parks
First it is important to note that there are in fact TWO very different parks in Thailand.
- Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, which is famous for the monks who casually interact with the tigers
- Tiger Kingdom that has one park in Chiang Mai, Phuket and Ubon.
Tiger Temple started with a monk who was given a large piece of land. People then (supposedly) brought animals to him to care for. That is how the park started. Today however the Tiger Temple is in the hands of the government. I do not know why there was a change in ownership, but there are many rumors circling around that I will not address in this article.
I did visit Tiger Temple, but note that this was only as a visitor, just like all the other tourists. They have quite a large area of land that unfortunately could be used in a better way for the animals. The tigers at Tiger Temple were sleeping in the hot sun during my visit, which in itself is not very surprising considering their nature.
However, I did not expect to see that all the tigers were in fact chained up and could not move around freely. A few of the younger tigers were walked around the park in a leash by employees. I had about 10 minutes in the tiger enclosure together with a stressed employee.
At the time of my visit, July 2014 the employees had to hold your hand for the entire stay inside the enclosure. I did not get a chance to take pictures myself but had to hand over my camera to the employee while I awkwardly posed with one tiger at a time. I also did not learn anything about the animals themselves during my visit. I am sure that Tiger Temple has a way to give their animals the exercise they need, but I did not see how.
Tiger Kingdom is privately owned by a woman named Kochakorn Chaiyabut. The first branch of the company opened as Ubon Zoo in Thailand. In 2008, a second park was opened; Tiger Kingdom Chiang Mai. Within the last few years a third park has opened in Phuket.
During my time at Tiger Kingdom, what surprised me the most was the employees’ genuine concern and care for these animals. Often when no visitors were around the trainers would stay within the enclosure to play and pet these animals. New toys were made daily for the tigers and the animal caretakers often took personal offense when the visitors would criticize the tigers and their well-being.
A normal day at the park
A workday starts early, at 06:30-07:00 the workers are already busy cleaning the enclosures and preparing for a long day. My first stop of the day would be the tiger enclosure of the Smallest. I would assist in bathing, toweling and hair drying the cubs. Without a mother to look after them, they need help with pooping and staying clean. It is not an easy job to try to wash and towel down triplets when they constantly find something to distract them or decide to steal the towel you are using.
The cubs are not fed repeatedly by tourists
There are charts available for how often and how much the cubs need depending on their size and age at Tiger kingdom.
I’d normally babysit the tigers while the staff went off to have breakfast before the park opened each day. After that, I’d go to the veterinary clinic where the new born cubs are kept. Very few people are allowed in there to make sure that the cubs stay healthy and undisturbed. The youngest ones are bottle fed, and there’s a certain technique to this. As our tigers grow in size we feed them minced chicken mixed with milk until they can eat properley. We have charts for how often and the quantity the cubs need to be given each week as they grow older.
These cubs are not fed repeatedly by tourists as some rumors dictate. In fact, the very youngest tigers are kept away from tourists and loud noises. If you happen to see a trainer feed one of the cubs, then you should consider yourself lucky since it does not happen very often in a day.
A story of friendship
The first friend I made at Tiger Kingdom was little Penguin, a two-week cub with very poor vision. She was the only one who survived her litter, but she was too small to be put together with other older cubs.
In the beginning, I’d spend hours sitting in her cage while she slept in my lap or tried to pull at my jeans. She might not have been able to see, but with her accurate hearing and perfect sense of smell, she could still recognize me easily.
There is a certain sound big cats emit when they are being friendly. It is a sort of “Hello, we’re friends” and it sounds like a “BOOF”. We would then “BOOF” right back and then both tiger and human knew that it is safe to approach. This sort of hello is said to each tiger every single morning before the park opened to the public.
As the trainers were teaching me how to handle and approach the tigers, this was my first lesson. Always give each tiger a proper good morning at the start of the day. From 11:00 I spent almost all my time inside the tiger enclosure with the medium and large tigers. My favorites were the biggest one, and especially a fellow named Sailom (wind).
He had a “I don’t care” kind of swag.
A lot of time was spent accompanying tourists in the enclosures and making sure they were constantly watched. But when I had a moment to myself I’d cuddle up to Sailom, and we’d lie in the burning sun together dozing. And I will forever miss those moments.
She came running full force, and threw herself at me.
My most precious memory from that time was being away from the park for two weeks without seeing my Penguin. During this time she had been moved into the enclosure with the smallest tigers where tourists could meet her. Her vision had still not improved, but she had doubled in size from when I first saw her.
I entered the enclosure and “BOOFED” at her. She came running full force, and threw herself at me in a hug and buried her nose in my neck and hair. She then decided it was playtime, but that’s another story.
It starts with some careless unknowledgeable words from someone on the internet. Someone reads these words as the absolute truth and it is then spread in the digital world. Once something is up on the internet, it won’t come back down. That is how a rumor starts online, and that is how the rumor about drugged tigers at Tiger Kingdom started. Through rushed words without any real knowledge, years later and the park is still trying to fight off these rumors.
We have a choice of who we want to be when we are online, too many people choose stupid. Please confirm your facts before you spread them as the absolute truth, and don’t expect everything you hear and read on the internet to be true.
How can you be sure there aren’t drugged?
I spent my first five days at Tiger Kingdom together with the veterinarian of the park. He is in charge of food rations, nutrition supplements, the animals’ general health and the cubs and their well-being.
During my entire stay at Tiger Kingdom, I would arrive before opening hours and leave after closing time with all the employees. I spent a lot of time in the veterinarian’s clinic, I was there for feeding time both for the cubs and the adult tigers and I spent most of my time in the cages with the tigers themselves.
First of all; The tigers are fed early morning (sunrise) and at the end of the day when the tourists leave (sundown). It is impossible to “sneak” the tigers drugs unnoticed in the middle of the day, and there is no drug that would last an entire day.
Second of all; Putting aside the fact that there is no drug that would be effective for 12 hours straight, it is also dangerous to drug these animals. It could potentially make them drowsy and unaware of their surroundings, and thereby dangerous. But also, whenever a tiger needs treatment, it must be sedated for safety reasons. It is not safe for the tiger to be sedated for more than one hour without risk to its life.
Why are they so docile?
All the tigers the tourists can visit are born at the park and raised by the trainers. Already as cubs they get used to being cleaned and fed and taken care of. Tigers at Tiger Kingdom learn to expect cuddles and playing. In short, they are very big kittens that grow up to weigh around 200 kg. When a trainer walks into a tiger enclosure the tigers will often approach him to get petted and scratched. All the tigers at the park appreciate a good tummy rub.
They have learned to expect cuddles and playing.
The fact that they are lazy and sleep most of the day help a great deal when tourists pet and take pictures with these animals. When the tigers are awake and in the mood for play, it limits how close you as a visitor can get to these animals, and yet many tourists aren’t happy with a sleeping tiger even when it means they can lie down next to it and hug it.
They are raised as pets, and the staff tend to think of them a little as overgrown house cats. They are however fully aware of these animals’ nature and that they should never fully trust them. After all, they may not be wild in its proper meaning, but they are by no means domesticated.
Where are all the other tigers?
In Thailand it is against the law to buy or sell tigers. Therefore all the tigers at both Tiger Temple and Tiger Kingdom have to stay within the company. Tiger Kingdom sometimes moves tigers within their three different parks, but all tigers stay in the park for the duration of their lives.
It is against the law to buy or sell tigers in Thailand.
As a visitor at Tiger Kingdom you have quite a few different age groups of tigers that you can visit. You might have thought about what happens to the tigers when they are no longer cubs, and why the park isn’t overrun by adult tigers. The tigers retire from the tourist between the age of 2-3, that is because around that time they reach their full size and their hormones change. It is a precaution by the park, to ensure the visitors’ safety.
Actually, the park is overrun by tigers, which is why there are now three parks and a fourth one might be seen in a near future. The trainers still spend time with the retired tigers, and the tigers are still rotated so they get a chance to exercise. A few selected tigers are also used for breeding, but as there is a big shortage of new genes inbreeding remains a problem with endangered captivity animals.
The tigers are overfed and overweight!
It is true that most captive tigers suffer from being overweigh however, it is not limited to tigers only, but all captive animals. The issue lies in trying to replicate the natural diet and surroundings which is more difficult for some species than others.
Complaints about a tiger looking malnourished when it is the ideal weight is a big problem
One obvious problem lies in the lack of space in zoos and animal parks. They simply do not have the capacity for the amount of animals they are housing. Moreover expansion of parks and zoo's is not always possible due to government restrictions, cost etc.
Visitors themselves and the expectations they bring with them on how a 'real tiger' is supposed to look is a real problem. Complaints about a tiger looking malnourished when it is the ideal weight are a regular occurrence as well as adoration for the chubbier and more huggable tigers.
Like most animal parks Tiger Kingdom has a certain amount of land that they are allowed to use. Currently they are at maximum capcity, most of the space is used for tiger enclosures, not for superficial purposes. However, it is still not enough. They are looking into opening another park which would host the older tigers that guests cannot visit or touch.
In the meantime, the trainers do their best to keep the animals stimulated. You might have seen pictures where a member of staff is holding up a long stick with a big leaf dangling at the end of it. Some have said that this is abuse. But, in reality, this is actually a giant version of a house cat’s toy. It lets the tigers chase after it, as in if they were chasing a prey.
If you are lucky with the timing of your visit, you might see the tigers wrestling in the pools. A lot of people think that these big cats hate water, but at Tiger Kingdom they use the pools to cool down in when the day is at its hottest. You can also see the tigers doing a splash-about wrestling game when they are feeling particularly playful, which tends to happen more often with the younger ones.
The cubs are separated from their mothers as babies!
The cubs are indeed often separated from their mothers when they are newly born, this is for several reasons.
A big problem among captive animals is that the mothers do not know how to take care of their young, especially first-time mothers. Some mothers have no interest in their young and because of these reasons many cubs would’ve died unless humans intervened. The health of the cub is also an issue since the veterinary cannot properly check the cub while it is together with its mother.
Captive animals do not always know how to take care of their young, especially first-time mothers.
It is also a fact that the younger an animal is, the stronger bonds it will create with its caretaker. By being in the hands of humans, the animal will learn to trust and build a relationship with this person. This, however, is not the reason why cubs are separated from their mothers, but it helps to explain the animals’ close relationship with the trainers.
Each tiger has its own personality, some are friendlier than others, some more trustworthy and some are downright naughty. Just like any person, they are each unique.
They are wild animals - stop treating them as house cats!
Yes, I do believe these animals belong in the wild. But I am not naive, in the world we have created there is no space for these animals to go. Is a field of green surrounded by roads really the wild? Isn’t it really just another form of a cage?
A captive animal cannot be introduced into the wild without high costs and big time commitments.
The truth is, a captive animal cannot be introduced into the wild without high costs and big time commitments, and even then their survival is not guaranteed. Even if there was a program to introduce these animals into the wild, where would they go? Where would they be safe from poachers and from each other? You cannot put just any tigers together and expect them to get along.
As far as I’m concerned, people are the ones who should be watching animals from within bars. But today that is not always possible, so then at least I feel like we should give these animals as much freedom as we possibly can within a cage.
Give them life quality. That is not an assignment, it’s an ongoing project.
Give us your comments!
How was your visit at Tiger Kingdom?