Scratching tigers’ bellies in Phuket!
Friends invited us to join them for an afternoon visit to Tiger Kingdom, a facility that lets you get up close and personal with young tigers aged 2 years old and younger. We were leery for several reasons, including having read articles that screamed “exploitation, the animals are mistreated and drugged – don’t support them!!”, but others in our sailing group had visited there and raved about it. We did a bit of research and decided to go see for ourselves.
When you arrive, you have to make decisions.
How much do you want to spend? How many tigers would you like to meet? What age/size tigers would you prefer? How brave are you?! They categorize them by four sizes – smallest/5 months (big kittens), small/10 months (very big kittens), big/14 months (not a kitten at all), and large/2 years (looks fully grown to me). You can choose to just visit one size, or any combination of the sizes, or all sizes – with prices to match. There is a slight savings if you do them all, but it’s not a cheap excursion. It was about $100 per person to see all the tigers and we stretched the experience to about 3 hours. You can bring your camera or you can hire one of their photographers.
They have a queue so that you experience the tigers in order – smallest to largest – starting with cute and ending with “OMG, this huge tiger could eat me if I touch him wrong!” Our enthusiasm and wide-eyed awe outweighed any fear. We witnessed others with more hesitation (and good sense, perhaps.)
Sheila says: My fear was that the tiger “keeper” would cut our time short if I did something I wasn’t supposed to, so that kept me in check. While I have great respect for the beautiful big cats, the naïve little girl in me wants to just snuggle right up, look deeply into their eyes and scratch their ears and chin!
Smallest first – there were only two and they were pretty sleepy.
Next came small – small is NOT small
It took a few minutes to get our bearings and realize that there were seven tigers in the enclosure with us! The keepers are much more diligent now and very specific about how to approach the tigers (always from behind, which is counter-intuitive), and which body parts are ok to touch and stroke. Sheila was greatly disappointed that we weren’t allowed to look into their faces straight on and scratch behind their ears!
Next came large – these are very big cats
We were much more timid and methodical in our movements. They were lying down, but fully alert and watching us the whole time. Sometimes, when their head swivels to look right at you, you wonder how patient they really are.
Next came largest – and they truly are enormous, magnificent animals.
Even though very intimidating, they still make fun noises when they have their bellies scratched.
As the day became cooler, the tigers became more playful
Tom tipped one of the keepers so he could go back into an enclosure and take some video of the tigers playing. It was just him with the keeper and seven tigers! Sheila takes full credit for suggesting Tom ask to do this!
And if you’re thinking that they must have had their teeth pulled to make them safe, take a look at this yawn!
Tiger Kingdom has a small snack bar (we didn’t try it), a gift shop that Sheila browsed, but escaped its temptations and the option to purchase prints from your photo session (a CD is included if you booked a photographer).
We can understand both sides of the exploitation argument.
Everybody loves tigers – they are beautiful, fascinating animals. People will pay good money for an opportunity to get close to them. Tiger Kingdom is a business out to make a profit – they have two other locations near Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The tigers aren’t tame, but they were raised from kittens so they are not afraid of or aggressive to humans. Because of this, they can never be released into the wild (even though there really are very few places remaining where releasing them is even practical). Near the age of three they become less cooperative and riskier with tourists, so they are moved to a sanctuary. As far as we could tell, they are very healthy, not abused, and the staff swears that they are NOT sedated. Similar to housecats, they like to lie around, sleep a lot (especially in the heat) and get their belly scratched. So, even though they are raised in captivity, if this facility did not exist, neither would these tigers. Even the opponents state that they’ve found NO infractions with this facility. So, the jury is still out for us. We definitely enjoyed our day interacting with them.
Because…how often do you get to scratch a tiger’s belly?
Trip Date: March-April 2015 – As part of 5 1/2 weeks which included Thailand and Cambodia Overview, SCUBA Diving, Temple ruins in Siem Reap, Bareboat Sailing for 10 days, Volunteering with Elephants, Chiang Mai and Bangkok.