Let’s talk about the day I have been frequently referring to as “the best day of my life.” That is, until Matt pointed out that was a little offensive, you know, since we had a wedding and all. Okay, I guess in the grand scheme of my whole life, it was most likely the SECOND best day of my life. As many of you know, I’m a bit of a crazy cat lady. Love them. If someone doesn’t properly regulate me, I’m most likely going to end up as a cat hoarder. So imagine a land filled with GIANT CATS, and then imagine me there.
Luckily for everyone, we don’t just have to imagine this scenario, because there is a magical place in Thailand called Tiger Kingdom. Tiger Kingdom is actually a breeding program–the tigers are bred and then hand-raised by humans in the park. When they turn two they “retire” and move to live out their lives in a zoo. There are so many criticisms of these kinds of places, but here are some reasons I think they’re good. One, tigers, like many other exotic animals, have dwindling populations in the wild. Breeding programs help keep their numbers up and protect against extinction. Two, since the tame tigers are raised for the zoos, wild tigers aren’t caught and forced to live there under duress. The tigers at Tiger Kingdom are totally tame, nearly as tame as your house pets. Living in a zoo is not a stressful situation for them–they like and are used to people, and they wouldn’t survive in the wild. It’s a win-win for both domesticated and wild tigers.
Once you arrive at Tiger Kingdom, you choose what size of tigers you’d like to visit and pay accordingly. You can visit the new borns (2 to 3 months old) for about $20, the smallest tigers (4-8 months old) for $20, the medium tigers (9-12 months old) for $15 or the big cats (13-30 months old) for $15. There are also package deals to visit more than one group, which is what we did. You also have to sign some waivers, which amazingly enough actually take responsibility if you are injured and promise to pay if something like that does happen. They do this because they are so confident in the trustworthiness of their cats. We decided to see the new borns (duh), the smallest tigers and the medium tigers. When we first arrived, we paid and then sat in a waiting area until it was our turn. While waiting, we watched the amazing big cats play in a swimming pool nearby, leaping after what was basically a giant cat toy made out of a stick and a plant, and got more and more excited as each moment passed. I was practically having heart palpitations by the time it was our turn!
Once inside the park, we first visited the new borns. The actual newborns (0-2 months) are not available for public viewing, so these are more like infants I guess. We were asked to wash our hands and put on slippers before entering their enclosure, to ensure we didn’t drag any nasty germs into the pen, and then we were allowed to snuggle with these cute babies. They have all kinds of rules–you’re not supposed to encourage the tigers to play with you, only with each other (training that comes in handy when they are bigger), you’re not supposed to allow them to lick or chew on you (again, this is only really important once they get bigger), and when they misbehave, the trainers give them a small tap on the nose with a bamboo stick–something that irritates them but doesn’t really hurt. Of course, being babies, these little guys broke all the rules, and we let them, because how cute is it to have a baby tiger chewing on your pants and licking your arm?? I die. The trainers were fairly lenient with the littlest guys, because obviously, they don’t know the “rules” yet. They were so playful–attacking trash, chewing on broomsticks through the bars, climbing into our laps, chewing on our clothing.
We found one in a corner who was trying to sleep, and had a little snuggle time with him. Once we were done, we moved a couple of feet away, and then to our delight, he sleepily followed us, snuggled back up to me, and buried his head between me and the wall. I wanted to take him home right then and there!
After seeing the babies, we moved onto the “smallest tigers.” These guys were quite a lot bigger, more playful, and slightly less snuggly. They entertained us by playing in their swimming pool–diving in to retrieve rocks and leaves their trainers threw in like balls, and splashing in the water with the same joy as a dog would.
Lastly, we moved onto the “medium size tigers,” who looked pretty large to us. The trainer in this pen was particularly entertaining. He immediately started telling us about the different personalities of the tigers in his care–the female is the most playful and sassy, he told us, and the two males, well, they are kind of lazy. We first met the female, who was indeed quite alert and interested in us. They warned us that when petting the tigers, it’s best to give them hard scratches and pats (like you would a big dog), because they sometimes think light touches are a fly and flick or swat accordingly. So we scratched and patted the big girl, and she happily accepted our love. Then we moved onto the “lazy” males, who were indeed pretty lazy. It wasn’t until we got a good belly rub going on one of them that he even reacted, but he finally did so with a roll onto his back and a deep stretch in appreciation. After the trainer showed us that he was a good snuggler, we gave him some cuddles as well.
Some people accuse Tiger Kingdom of drugging, declawing or pulling out the teeth of their tigers to make them tame. As far as we could see, none of these were true. Most of the tigers were very alert, or would alternate between playfulness and cat naps, much like any house cat. One of the trainers squeezed one of the tigers paws so we could see his claws pop out (again, just like you would if trimming a house cats nails), and we saw many of the tigers yawn, and they definitely had teeth. So why are they so tame? Simply because just like pets, they completely rely on humans to survive. They don’t know how to hunt (they’re fed raw chicken) and they’re discouraged from playing with humans. Most of the trainers have been with the tigers since their birth–so again, just like your average house pet, the tigers think of the trainers as part of the pack.
Spending a day with tigers was something I never thought I’d do, but I’m so glad I did. Maybe I should have been more skeptical, or been more cautious (I’m pretty sure I did not display a healthy fear of the tigers, which caused Matt some fear), but once I saw how sweet and gentle the cats were with the park’s staff, I wasn’t worried at all. I think it’s cool that Tiger Kingdom offers people a chance to participate in once-in-a-lifetime experiences like this, and it funds their project, which ultimately could keep these cats in existence. Overall, it seems to me they’re doing more good than harm.
We left Tiger Kingdom feeling giddy–it was one of those “is this really our life??” days. I had a grin on my face the rest of the day, and we kept saying to each other “Hey, remember that time we PLAYED WITH TIGERS? That was awesome.” Little did I know that the best day of our trip would soon turn into the worst night of our trip. More on that tomorrow….
In the meantime, what do you think about places like Tiger Kingdom?