I Visited The 'Tiger Temple' And It Made Me Sick
When Thailand's controversial "Tiger Temple" was raided on May 30, with grim discoveries of frozen cubs and tiger and bear carcasses, I was relieved that it was finally shut down. Back in December 2007, my husband and I went there thinking it was a sanctuary. A Buddhist temple where monks walk with tigers and visitors play with cubs sounded like a dream. After a long bus ride from Bangkok, we walked through a field of tall grass, dragging our suitcases in the midday heat. Within minutes, a guy on a moped appeared out of the forest and drove us, one after the other, inside the temple.
The monastery's website claimed the tigers were "hand-reared with compassion by monks." As the story went, the temple took in its first tiger cub in 1999 after poachers killed her mother. Soon, more orphans arrived and the "sanctuary" grew. When entering the temple, we were told the rules of approaching the tigers and signed a waiver releasing the monks of any liability in case we were injured or mauled. It quickly became obvious that the place was a scam, the worst kind of roadside zoo.
My heart sank when I saw tigers tethered to trees. Wandering off on our own, we saw rows of urine-soaked concrete cages crammed with four or five tigers. Some had bloodshot eyes and scars and were terrified of humans, but there was nowhere for them to hide. Among them were a few equally sad-looking lions, leopards and bears also enduring a lifetime of suffering.
Before we could take pictures, the staff wrangled us back with the other visitors on the terrace, where the monks brought out baby tigers. They were tiny and taken away from their mothers too early (in the wild, they stay with them until they're 2 years old). Hearing the cubs squealing as they got passed around like rag dolls was gut-wrenching.
The arrival of the abbot, a short, old man with a shaved head and a stern face, signaled that it was time for the tiger walks. He had a walkie-talkie sticking out of his yellow robes. The monks walked the tigers on chains, encouraging everyone to touch them and take pictures - at an extra cost - all under the guise of conservation. I felt disgusted watching these magnificent beings enslaved while streams of tourists paraded through. Having spent my life around animals, most of whom had been abandoned or abused, I could see the cats were scared of the monks and their handlers.
Then the monks and tigers disappeared. Not long after, the crowd was led down a canyon to a deserted gravel quarry. All the tigers - the same cats from the walk who only moments ago were lively and pissing on trees - were lying flat and lifeless, chained to the ground so they couldn't stand up.
Before I realized what was happening, I got shuffled along to have my picture taken with a tiger. "Did you drug these tigers?" I asked, incensed. I started arguing with the monks in front of a busload of tourists. A group of Californians joined in, shouting, "They're obviously drugged. Look at 'em, they're half-dead." The monks and their minions, with barely concealed hostility, insisted that the cats get sleepy because it's so hot.
I've volunteered in sanctuaries around the world, from tending lions, baboons and other wildlife in Namibia to fruit bats in Australia, and have never seen anything like Tiger Temple, which was a horror show. During my time there, I saw the Thai staff kicking and hitting tigers with sticks when the frustrated animals refused to cooperate, and boisterous cubs being slapped on the face and dragged away by their tails.
There were other animals roaming the grounds - deer, cows, camels, goats, pigs and peacocks - and some were sick, skinny or lame. Only the water buffalo looked content, probably because the monks hadn't found ways to exploit them. I came across a deer with a torn-off hoof staggering on a raw bloody stump. He gave up and slumped by the temple stairs. I was upset to see the buck in obvious distress and sought out the Canadian volunteer, who had driven us on the moped, to help. "We let animals be," he shrugged. "Buddhists don't interfere with nature."
"No," I snapped, "they just imprison, drug and torture them."
In line with the organization's spiel, he said the tigers had a spiritual bond with the monks, and the cubs were even brought to the temple to have breakfast with them. To prove his point that the animals had freedom to live (and breed) naturally, the volunteer added, the grounds were overrun with wild pigs. "If that's the case, why aren't there more baby tigers?"
"The monks sold them to China," my husband taunted him, unaware how prescient his words were.
When I asked why they didn't neuter the pigs, he said it was against Buddhist principles. Instead the piglets were sent to farmers and doubtless slaughtered.
Leaving upset and angry, I complained to World Animal Protection (formerly called WSPA), the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and PETA, and later discovered the controversy swirling around the place. Over the years, former workers, volunteers and activists have complained about the ritual abuse and humiliation of the tigers and cubs. There were maulings, missing tigers and ongoing investigations of illegal wildlife trafficking, but the monks persistently denied everything and continued to have their license renewed.
For years after I wondered why a bunch of Buddhist monks were hidden away in a forest with wild tigers. Now I can't stop thinking if the tigers I met are still alive. Sadly, Tiger Temple isn't the only so-called "sanctuary" in Thailand or Southeast Asia where wild animals are tortured for entertainment. Anyone who truly cares about animals should never support these tourist traps.
Some of the cruelest places in Thailand include Tiger Kingdom and Bangkok's Safari World and Oasis Sea World in Chantaburi. Avoid any places where wild animals perform unnatural acts and never ride an elephant - they're usually torn away from families and beaten into submission.
To visit or volunteer at a genuine sanctuary in Thailand, check out some of the best: Elephant Nature Park, Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary and Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, which operates several excellent refuges.