I love cats of all shapes and sizes, so when I learned that Chiang Mai was home to one of Thailand’s infamous “tiger farms,” I had basically but no choice to include it in my itinerary for today.
There was just one thing that bothered me. See, the reason tiger tourism in Thailand is “infamous” is that, according to rumor anyway, the tigers are drugged so they don’t, like, kill you.
The good news is that I returned from Chiang Mai’s “Tiger Kingdom” unscathed and unscratched. The bad news? I found no evidence that definitively confirms or denies the farm’s tigers are being sedated, promotional leaflets notwithstanding.
Tiger Kingdom begins assuring you that its tigers are not drugged almost as soon as you enter. After you select your tiger package (prices range from 420 Thai baht for a single visit with a large tiger, all the way up to 2,000 THB to meet tigers of all four pre-determined sizes), you are directed to a waiting area, where “educational” materials such as these reside.
I selected a package that allowed me to get up-close and personal with “big,” “small” and “smallest” tigers. Up first were the “smallest” tigers, who were extremely playful and rambunctious, although one of them seemed extremely lethargic for the first few minutes I was in the pen. All it took for him to begin playing with the others was a jostle from one of his trainers, so I doubted he was drugged.
Up next were the “small” tigers, of which there were three. As had been the case with the “smallest” tigers, one of the small tigers seemed pretty out of it. But as had been the case in the other pen, he shot up from his sleep almost on command, and began pacing around. I should note that for both the “smallest” and “small” tigers, trainers were pretty lax about the extent to which visitors such as myself could play with the tigers.
Although the trainer invited me to lay with the “small” tigers as I’d done with the babies, I was initially reluctant — I don’t think the “insurance included” notation on the package receipt had been for nothing.
But I did my best to become comfortable with the tiger because let’s face it: Animals can smell fear. Speaking of senses, I found it interesting that I am slightly allergic to tigers, just as I am to house cats.
Although the staff were in many cases just as playful as the tigers, I never once felt unsafe inside the tiger pens, although I did wonder to what extent they were trained to deal with an unlikely emergency.
Back to the issue of tigers being drugged, it wasn’t until I entered the “big” tiger pen that I became suspicious again. Could this huge animal really just be “tired,” as the informational leaflets had said? I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little scared interacting with him.
To my knowledge, this “big” female tiger is the only cat woman I saw during my time at Tiger Kingdom. Interestingly, she seemed much more on edge than any of the males had seemed. Or I assume she did — she acted just like my mom’s cats do when they’re spooked. I couldn’t help but feel a little bad for her. It must suck to be in a cage, regardless of whether you’re being drugged.
At the end of the day, the judgment call is yours alone: Do you think tiger tourism in Thailand is ethical?