Monday, April 25, 2011

Playing with Panthera at Tiger Temple

The tiger sniffed my hands, decided he liked the smell, then started to chew.

That is, he decided to chew the chicken I was holding out for him. (Betcha wondered where this was going, didncha?)

Although this sounds like I'm tempting fate, it's really not, at least not in my mind.

However, there is something very special about offering food to a large carnivore that you know could eat you if it decided to, but instead it takes the food from your hands, even taking time to lick your hands to make sure it gets all the juices and every last little bit of chicken there is to be had. The tongue, surprising, was really no rougher than the tongues of house cats I've kept as pets, albeit, it's much bigger.

Hand feeding a teen tiger.

The tiger was a large, but not fully-grown adolescent who lives with 87 other tigers at the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Feeding him was part of an incredible experience that capped off my visit to Thailand the first two weeks of April 2011.

Visitors to the centre may choose to participate in one of the extended programs that includes feeding an unweaned tiger cub with a bottle of formula, walking (or rather, being "walked by"!) a tiger cub, giving them a bath with soap and water, feeding them cooked chicken from your hands, playing with some of the adolescents in a pool, and finally, walking with/watching adult tigers engaged in play in a larger pool where only the facility's staff are allowed to be while the tigers are loose.

These tigers are not exactly wild, but not exactly tame, either. What has now become the Tiger Temple, started with the saving of two young Indo-Chinese tiger cubs from starving to death after their mother had been shot. Someone brought the cubs to this monastery and the monks began to care for them.

Before long, more cubs were brought to the temple, which eventually became a sanctuary.

A hungry cub

As with any approach that is outside the standard practice used in animal conservation or welfare, there are critics of the temple's approach to keeping these endangered animals in what is essentially a zoo. Some cite evidence of less-than-adequate conditions for some of the creatures. I cannot dispute that, nor can I confirm it; with any touring group, even as a media member, we are shown what the management chooses to show us, so I really cannot speak one way or another about the conditions behind the scenes. Quite honestly, I wouldn't really know what to look for. I can tell you if a companion parrot or dog or cat is being cared for properly; I don't know anything about caring for large carnivores.

The animals I saw during my visit seemed healthy and happy. Again, I didn't see all 88 tigers, so I cannot say one way or another how the overall conditions there match up with something like, say, the Bronx Zoo, which is probably the best zoo in the world.

During a lengthy conversation I had with Dr. Somchai, the head veterinarian at the Tiger Temple, he admitted the situation at the Tiger Temple is not a perfect solution; far from it. Would he not rather see these tigers in the wild? Yes, he would. But he does raise the pertinent question, "Where would they live?"

That's a question that is only partially hypothetical in nature - it is very practical, as well. There are very few extensive tracts of forest cover large enough to provide food and habitat for the 88 tigers that live at the temple, certainly not in Thailand. Dr. Somchai stated, quite accurately, that if those tigers could somehow be rehabilitated and be released into the wild, they would very soon be shot.

Kind of puts us all between a rock and a hard place, really. That question about dwindling habitat is one we all need to ponder as we continue to see more forests cut down in what used to be prime tiger habitat.

Sadly, the doctor expressed the thought to me that unless humans change our ways, he felt that eventually there will be no more wild tigers, anywhere. In fact, even now, there are more tigers in captivity than there are living in the wild. And that latter number seems to be decreasing further each year.

Tigers at play, Tiger Temple, Thailand

I hope to someday see a wild tiger in its natural habitat, before they all disappear. I may or may not experience that. I do know the experience I had at the Tiger Temple was awe-inspiring. It makes me want to do even more to save the remaining wild tigers.

There are many organizations working toward saving the last few remaining wild tigers. Among that group are:

The World Wildlife Fund Tiger Conservation Program
The Save the Tiger Fund
The Sumatran Tiger Trust
The Wildlife Conservation Society Tigers in Peril

I'll finish this post by leaving this quote for you to ponder (bearing in mind, that given humankind's current path, we may very well be eliminating the other possibility):

"It is not part of a true culture to tame tigers, any more than it is to make sheep ferocious."
  Henry David Thoreau 
(If you would like to see more images of my experience at Tiger Temple, go to:


  1. John,
    I really enjoyed reading about Tiger Temple and would now like to go there, next time I travel to Thailand, based on your experience. You know how I love animals. The issue about keeping the Tigers in a zoo-like environment is a difficult one as you pointed out. There's no where else for them to go.

  2. Thanks, Anabela! Seeing tigers in the wild is one of my dream trips. I'm thinking either Ranthambore or Nepal's Royal Chitwan National Park.