Downtime with the Big Cats (20060717)
I've been fascinated with tigers since I was a kid. On the many trips to the zoo I forced my dad to take me on, one of my favorite animals was watching Prince Charles. A white Siberian tiger, he always looked a bit regal and out of place in his enclosure, a living black-and-white photo, his massive head held up as he paced through all the faded yellow rock and brown trees that surrounded him. That wide-eyed five-year-old that I was never would've imagined that actually touching a live tiger would be a possibility. It seemed more likely that I could be a tiger than touch one. So I was ecstatic to learn that around 40 km from Kanchanaburi, the province northwest of Bangkok that adjoins the border with Burma, there is a temple called Watpa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno. Nobody call it that, though, except for the bus conductor who was confused by where the FMA and I wanted to go. Everybody else calls it the Tiger Temple, including the monks who live there. The Tiger Temple started as a typical Thai forest monastery in 1994, where the orange-robed monks would continue to live their lives according to their Buddhist precepts. There were no tigers living there then, although there were several species of wild animals in the area, including rarely-sighted panthers. According to the temple's website, it has been a refuge for animals since it was opened. Injured wild birds started it all, which the temple nursed back to health, and then more injured birds were given to the abbot, Phra Acharn Chan. They were followed by a wild boar that made its way onto the temple grounds. Unwanted pets from nearby villagers followed, and in each case, the temple accepted them with gratitude and cared for them, even nursing them back to health when the monks had no formal training to do so. A few of the animals released back into the wild returned with their flocks, herds and other associated brethren. While all of this is well and good, none of it is particularly exciting or relevent except that from its first day, the temple has cared for animals without exception, but also without much experience in the matter. The monks learned in the hands-on, old-fashioned way, which makes what happened next even more unusual. In February 1999, a sick Indochinese tiger cub was given to the temple. Her mother had been killed by poachers, and she had been unsuccessfully poisoned by a taxidermist. The monks took care of her as best they could, but she died in July of that year. Just a few weeks later, two male tiger cubs were given to the temple by villagers, and a few weeks after that the Thai border patrol dropped off four female cubs, all orphaned by poacher's guns. Jump ahead seven years, and the monks and their group of Thai and foreign volunteers take care of the 16 tigers they now have. To help raise the enormous amount of money needed to care for them, they've invited visitors to come and hang out with the big cats in the afternoon, when the normally nocturnal tigers are sleepy. The logic behind this is obvious: the tigers are less likely to think that Bob from Alabamy is a new chew toy if they're sleeping with their heads in their water dishes. The entrance fee of 300 Baht is a bit expensive for Thailand, but since the money all goes to a good cause it's hard to refuse. In fact, the fee used to be 250 Bt. until recently, when the abbot raised the price to try and stem the flow of visitors. The experience was well worth the money. Down in the tigers' exercise area, the abbot sat calmly, watching the proceedings carefully. The biggest of the tigers were on chains in the front, and being older, they're the sleepiest. Since many of the cats were born at the temple, and all of them have been cared for since they were young cubs, they were extremely comfortable around the abbot. Nevertheless, they are tigers. One of the volunteers, Peter, told me how the day before, two of the male tigers were fighting. Not playing, as they do often, but having a good ol' claws 'n' teeth brawl. "What did you do?" I asked him. His eyebrows raied a bit. "You keep back. We had to wait until they'd calmed down, and nobody was allowed into the exercise area." Logical, of course, but this made a lot of sense. Despite looking like big versions of little cats, and moving like big versions of little cats, these were tigers: lethal, powerful, and not to be toyed with no matter how affectionate they can get. One of the older ones was even coaxed by the abbot to suck on his thumb to calm the animal down. So teasing them with hunks of meat, as you might tease a domesticated cat with some tuna, was out of the question. A swat from the housecat gets you a scratch; the same from a tiger gets you eviscerated. But touching them was okay. No, really. Two volunteers were assigned to each tourist, one taking photos with the tourist's camera and the other guided the visitor to the back side of the tiger, to pet them, sit next to them or just inhale the close-up stink of tiger. They felt less like a housecat than I would've thought. Their fur was a dense coat of hair, thick and matted, but their skin was loose, as if it had been cut too large for them. The muscles underneath were taught and firm. The power beneath was apparent; even at rest it felt like a gun hammer ready to drop. At the end of the day, as the tigers were walked back to their cages, visitors could also walk with the oldest of the tigers as the abbot led him. The abbot kept pace with the tiger, but just behind one of his ears, always staying a step or two after the tiger's lead. The tiger did lead, too: Over to some rocks, spraying a bit, and then crossing the path again to some low bushes for a sniff. The tourist walked near the rear haunches, one hand on the tiger, gently stroking if he felt brave. I was brave, or perhaps stupid. Touching a moving tiger sounds about as dumb as one can get. Yet there I was, left hand gently stroking the orange fur, damp from the light rain and stinking even worse than before. Little orange sheddings clung to my palm as we walked up the hill, and the power apparent beneath the loose skin was incredible. It was like touching a hurricane at rest. Some of the snippets of conversation from other tourists the FMA and I overheard outside the enclosure were a bit disappointing. "What other attractions do you have?" and other variations on that ignorant statement we heard from Israelis, British, Americans and everybody else. How could people become so jaded about touching a tiger, so quickly? This experience was possible only because the monks at the temple had dedicated their lives to treating all animals respectfully, and less than five minutes after leaving the compound they want to see something else? Something bigger, better, more unusual? They could try sticking their heads in a blender, and let me know after how exciting that was. Thanks to some serious media attention from TV crews from Russia and elsewhere, the Tiger Temple has become well-known enough to have nearly one thousand visitors a week. Volunteers can come and live as the monks do, for a minimum of a week, and help care for the tigers. Visitors with money to burn can buy 300 Bt. T-shirts, a 100 Bt. necklace with a faux tiger claw or spend 500 Bt. on a belt with the same claw. The belt purchase also includes the abbot taking you into the enclosure and finding the head of a docile tiger to put in your lap. Small children are allow to sit on the tiger's back. When I was originally researching the temple, I came across some Internet message board controversy as to whether the monks abuse the tigers or not. One poster claimed that the animals were injected with tranquilizers, another complained about physical abuse of the tigers. I asked several of the volunteers about the treatment of the tigers, and got answers that varied in word choice and tone. So, they could've been coached to tell inquisitive and nosy visitors that the tigers were well-treated, or that veterinarians visit at least three times a week, but that all seems unlikely. If the temple didn't want to take care of the animals, they could've donated them to a zoo. It seems like a rather dangerous and elaborate scam to push on tourists. The tigers all seemed sleepy, except when the younger ones were playing with each other or when one got up to roar at a volunteer we were told he didn't like since he was a cub. The only conduct I saw that was unusual occured when one of the younger tigers, too big to be called a cub anymore, growled at one of the Thai volunteers. The volunteer gave him a poke in the head with his fist, hard enough to remind the tiger who was in charge, but not hard enough to hurt him - no different from how you would train a dog or cat, but a proprotionally bigger punishment. Or perhaps it is different - I wouldn't know. But the monks and volunteers at the Tiger Temple are self-trained, and seem to genuinely love the animals they care for. Siegfried and Roy used a whip on their animals; I didn't see any of that. There have been no substantiated reports of abuse coming out of the temple, and seeing as how 16 Indochinese tigers are alive now that probably wouldn't be otherwise, it's hard to have anything but respect and admiration for the monks. Besides, their dedication has allowed the general public to get a lot closer to tigers than ever before. From seeing the respect and care given to them, perhaps more people will be aware of this endangered species of big cat and do more to save the tiger.