Photojournalism

Thai-ger Are tourist attractions like, Tiger Kingdom exploiting wildlife?

By: Brian Simuro

No doubt Tiger Kingdom is a controversial place. I get it and trust me I was going there to investigate for myself if this was a good place or not. I am an animal lover and not keen on captive animals so I will provide you my honest assessment.  Now the park believed I was an average tourist and did not know they were about to be the subject of a photojournalistic documentary. I was loaded with cameras all over me.  Some hidden, some not.

On my way to Tiger Kingdom, I asked my guide extensively about the rumors of the tigers being drugged and he explained it to me this way. 1. All of the tigers you encounter have been raised around humans since birth. They are raised in a human environment and very used to contact with people. 2. The tigers are very well fed in the morning and are generally sleepy during the hot Thailand days. The tigers are nocturnal animals and thus used to being more active at night.

Are the tigers doped up or drugged? –

The quick answer, it didn’t appear so. I went first thing in the morning and most of the tigers were lively and playful. The big guys were way more lethargic then the little guys too. I took several close up shots of the tigers’ eyes and their pupils were normal size. If the animals were on some sort of narcotic you should have either pinpoint or blasted out pupils.. They weren’t!  I monitored the breathing and respiratory rate and all was within normal range.  Kind of left me feeling bewildered.

Is it dangerous? –

YES! No matter what they will have you believe in your little training session, these are wild animals with wild instincts. While they are used to human contact, you can never fully trust a wild animal. I am a professional wildlife photographer and have seen even the most docile animals turn aggressive.  Did I forget to mention you have to crawl through a small 4’x4′ gate just to get into the cage?  That in and of itself is a bit of an eye opener.  There are only a handful of trainers inside armed with what looks like a skinny bamboo stick.  No metal hooks, poles or guns of any type.  The animals, especially the teenagers run around you openly and play fight quite aggressively.  This is not an experience for the faint of heart by any means.  Definitely NOT safe nor do I think it is a good tourist attraction.  In my opinion, animals have the right to live without gawking tourists encroaching on their living environments.

Is it safe enough to try? –

I did this excursion with the notion I was filming it so for me it was worth it. I don’t think it is overly safe if I am giving my honest opinion.  I’m not even sure the question of safety is the issue either.  While very few if any people have been injured in the cages, accidents have happened.  The Thai government is very careful to not give these incidents any attention so they are difficult to track. I felt scared the entire time I was inside and when you realize that there is no real escape for you, the fear can really set in.

Can you visit the babies?

Sadly, yes. From a business stand point I get it.  This is where they start getting the animals used to all types of human interactions.  From an animal caretaker’s perspective, this is a horrible and potentially life threatening situation for the cubs.  We forget that animals can catch our germs and sometimes vice versa.  While these two month old cuties are hard to say no to, we must realize that in the long run we are probably causing them harm. In Thailand, once an animal ceases to be needed, they usually kill them.  Having said that, the staff was very careful about germs with the little guys. You will be asked to wash your hands before you handle these little guys and to remove your shoes. This is done for the safety of the tigers and it really made me feel good about what I was seeing….kind of.

Another thing to consider about these young babies. The 2 month olds are quite lively and playful. You could cuddle up with the sleepers and play around a little with the ones who were up and around. It is hard to admit but they were adorable and cuddling and playing with them was an amazing experience.  It felt it was very safe but I assure you this area of the park is where the bites and injuries occur.  In fact, one of the handlers turned away from an active cub and got bit drawing a fair amount of blood.  His fault completely and the tiger was being playful and not acting out of aggression. Remember, all four legged animals use their mouths to explore and play. Every domesti dog owner can reaffirm this.

Were the animals mistreated or forced to play? –

I did not see any mistreatment at all. The handlers all have a thin piece of bamboo that is really more of a visual training reminder for the tigers. Its a mental thing cus you could snap those little bamboo sticks with one hand. They use that for the big guys too. Sometimes a handler will use the stick to show you a tooth or claw or even to engage the animal but it wasn’t done in a way that I thought was abusive at all. And trust me, I was waiting for one of the trainers to do something like that so i could video it and photograph it. To my surprise, it just didn’t happen and I was extremely happy about that.

The pens are also very clean and they have huge shallow pools for the tigers to play in during the hot times.  There is a mix of concrete and grass on the ground and several small tree branch toys that the tigers seem to love.  If you go here looking to see mistreatment and dangerous conditions, other then being in the pens with wild tigers, you are going to have a tough time finding them.  The staff and owners know what they are doing and they do it well.

Are you sure the big tigers weren’t drugged? I mean are you really sure? –

I did the package where you interact with the little, medium and big cats. The little and medium cats were extremely active. i have video footage that shows this.  The big guys look like they are passed out most of the time but again, they would wake up and kind of stir around some. As an example, I was in the process of giving one a big hug when all of a sudden he gets up and stretches out to sit in a perched position. The look on my face is priceless as I thought for sure I was in for it. The tiger didn’t mind me at all. He allowed me to pose for some pictures and just kind of hung out for a bit. It got my blood pumping for sure though.

When I saw the big tigers basicly lying on the deck seemingly passed out, it is easy to think they are drugged up. A few of them barely moved at all. But eventually they would move some or change positions and I took pictures of their pupils and they were normal size. Can I say for sure they are not drugged? No, but it didn’t seem so. Hard to believe big tigers could let you cuddle with them and not care but they allow you to do just that.

Is Tiger Kingdom a place we should visit? –

In my humble opinion, “Yes and no” but maybe not for the reasons you might think. These animals are not rescued.  They are bred in captivity and the day they stop making the owners money,  I dread to think of their fate.  Lets look at it this way.  On one hand I despise them with every fiber of my being.  Animals should not have to be entertainment for humans. All living creatures are entitled to dignity.  However, on the other hand these beautiful creatures are endangered and these types of facilities keep the numbers alive but more importantly offer a level of education to guests from around the world.  I struggle with the right answer to provide because I feel all animals should be free but habitualized ones will never make it in the jungle. The saddest part is that I really think the owners know this dilemma all too well. These interactive exhibits are big business and generate a lot of money.  I think the answer has to be within you.  There are pros and cons so go with your heart but remember this one last thing.  I’ll say it again because it is worth repeating.  Once these animals cease to bring in money, they will almost certainly be euthanized.  While I understand our desire to see these regal animals, watching a living creature spend it’s life in a cage doesn’t seem like much of a life to me.  I think I would rather see them be extinct versus caged up for our personal entertainment.

About the author: Brian Simuro is a world recognized wildlife photo journalist and photographer.  His work has been used by professionals in the USA, Canada, Mexico and Asia.  Brian has won several awards for bringing attention to several wildlife causes worldwide and is a an expert in the field of capturing animals in motion.  In addition to his documentaries and written articles, Brian is also a volunteer animal caretaker and photographer for the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.