We did not believe this for one second, but even so, we were not going to miss an opportunity to pet a Tiger!
Joel and I ventured north of Chiang Mai, Thailand to visit the famous "Tiger Kingdom". When we arrived, we were allowed to pick the size of tigers we would like to play with. We decided that it made the most sense to visit the smallest tigers and the largest tigers. Might as well pet them on both ends of the spectrum. We were given tickets and had to wait our turn.
First, we waited outside of the smallest tiger pen. This was a very fancy pen, and about a dozen people were allowed inside at a time. I was curious to watch how the tigers were treated to try and pick up on the "magic" that seemed to keep them so calm. These babies were not calm. They were as wild and playful as our neighbor's kittens who wrestle with one another and climb everything in site. The thing was, these kittens were the size of a basset hound. Each tiger cub has a trainer with them who pulled them away from their siblings and friends so that they would make themselves available for tourists to pet them. The trainers were armed only with a small stick that they used sparingly to switch the little cubs only hard enough to distract them from whatever had currently caught their attention. It was neither forceful or cruel from what I witnessed.
When it was time for us to enter into this pen, we had to remove our shoes and wash our hands. We wore special sandals and headed in to visit the cubs. Right away, I was taken aback by how huge these babies were. Their paws were large enough to do significant damage if they so choose, and their claws were impressive. The cubs around us wanted to play and were toppling all over themselves, running past us as we tried to pet them. We were not allowed to pet their faces or heads. The goal was to keep our hands closest to their haunches in order that we would not be playfully (yet fatally) bitten.
Joel and I sat on the ground and watched the cubs play around us. As we were sitting there I was stunned when a tiger cub crawled from behind me into my lap. The encounter only lasted a second, but it truly was pure magic. My heart leaped inside me as I stroked this orange and black feline that felt strangely like my tiger stuffed animal that I had when I was a kid. They were not silky or soft really, their hair is more wiry than I would have assumed. Joel and I were delighted by this encounter with the cubs and people around me kept saying, "Don't you feel so lucky?" I did.
A little while later, we found ourselves at the largest tiger pen. Fewer people were allowed into this area at a time. Here, the guides would not take photos for you. Their attention was ever fixed on the tigers. Each couple of humans had a guide walking with them. I was a little unnerved because again, this guide only held that small, switch-stick just like they had in the cub pen. Looking at these enormous cats, I knew full well that little stick would not stop one of them if they decided they were tired of visitors. Our guide spoke English and liked to joke around so he kept trying to get us to reach for the full grown tigers or at one point he told me to lay on one of them that was resting. I was so uncomfortable with this but I did it...for a second. These giant cats seemed more irritated and less energetic their their young. One paced back and forth in front of the window where people would watch tourists pet the tigers, a few more lounged quietly letting people stroke their back legs.
Twice a rogue male came up behind Joel while he was squatting next to a resting tiger for me a take a photo. Both times, our guide yelled for Joel to move away fast while he stepped in between. Whatever his presence did the beast declined his attack (or whatever that might have been). It was strange to be on the inside of the cage with giant cats while people looked on from the freedom of the outside.
I still wondered why these creatures abide such invasions. It was clear that every tiger in the kingdom had been raised by human hands and was used to be touched day in and day out by teams of tourists. But I had to wonder about the larger ones. For as much as we read that these tigers are not drugged, and as uncomfortable as I was with the fact that they did not appear to be sedated in the least (I honestly hoped they would be a little because they were very alert), there was one strange moment.
Joel was posing for a photo when the sitting tiger in the photo began to throw up like a cat does when they choke on a hairball. Instantly, in a splash of what looked like milk on the ground, I saw a blue pill sitting in the middle of the fresh puddle of upchuck. Our guide, casually and quickly scooted us away but I know that I saw a pill.
Of course, I will never know what that pill was or what it does to a tiger, but I had to wonder if these guys, as alert as they were, were under some sort of sedative care. It makes sense to me that they would be. I don't imagine that Tiger Kingdom would last very long if people were mauled regularly.
Petting tigers was an epic experience for us. We really enjoyed it and are glad that we were able to give it a go. However, one cannot help but wonder at what this all means. Morally, it all felt wrong. I know this is the most unnatural way to raise and maintain tiger health. We learned that the tigers who get too aggressive to stay in the pens are sold to circuses and zoos. I don't like any of that and I don't like that there are hundreds of tigers not running wild in the jungles of their natural states, but being raised to be petted by people daily. However, I am torn because I also thought it was wonderful to have this experience. We left with a strange dissonance between what we know is right and what we enjoyed today. We have had many discussions about this experience since then.
While there is a lot to ponder and moral issues to consider, we did pet some tigers and that was amazing.