The Tiger Temple started life about 12 years ago when someone rescued a tiny tiger cub from a poacher and gave her to the local Abbot at the temple, he cared for her but unfortunately after a few months she died. Strangely a week or so later two more little tiger cubs were delivered into the hands of the monks and out of the poachers. Word got around and more tiger cubs appeared out of the woodwork (very sad - most of their mothers have been killed and sold on the black market to China where tiger bits are considered cures for impotence, horrible.) Fast forward to now and for a donation visitors are treated to the sight of these 10 fully grown beasts frolicking like kittens with the monks, with no bars, and mostly no chains to keep them under control.
After signing away our lives at the front desk we study a sign that tells us that Tigers are "kindly but dangerous" we approach a huge metal gate. We enter with knees knocking and start the long walk into the canyon half expecting a tiger to leap out and savage us in a kindly manner at any moment. Instead we arrive safely at the bottom of a dry rocky canyon and there they are, huge heads, massive paws, orange fur, black stripes, lolling on rocks, lying on the ground - they are beyond beautiful. The monks and the helpers known as "tiger boys" wander freely amongst them rubbing them on the head and scratching them under the chin like they are pet cats. It is the most extraordinary sight.
Us tourists are kept at bay with nothing but the safety of a little red cord - lovely. Then we are asked if we would like to go in and pat the tigers, what??? Before I know it one of the Tiger Boys holds me by the hand and another Tiger Boy takes my camera to take some pics. "Sit" says Tiger Boy as we approach one of the beasts, I do and then he says patting his hand on its haunches "touch, touch". I do and they feel rather lovely, like a soft hairy dog than a cat. Then we are off to visit another, and another. Sometimes the tigers growl or roll over and the tiger boys just push them down with their hands. The head monk sits at the side watching over the scene smiling at the tigers like a proud Papa - occassionally stepping in to take someones small child or in one instance my nephew Alec and sit them on the tigers backs or make the kids sit on the ground with an enormous tiger head in their laps. Alec (and the tiger) didnt seem at all phased as the photo shows.
After working with wild cats in Bolivia, Ed and I were pretty well versed in what big cats are like even if they are hand raised. They will still try and attack you if the opportunity presents itself. The scary thing about this is that these Tigers made our Pumas and Ocelots look like kittens size wise but behaviour wise they were just so placid. There are rumours that the tigers are drugged but having worked at the animal park we know this can't be possible. The amount of sedatives a tiger would need to be drugged each day would be huge not to mention very expensive, also large animals cannot be tranquilised everyday without developing heart problems. And considering how growly and active these guys were at dinner time its just not possible.
What is bizarre is how the tigers are just so compliant and relaxed. It is either very good training, with the monks being very assertive with the cats so maybe they think they are the alpha tigers or it is the magic of Buddha....I don't know which but I do know there wont be too many opportunties in life where you can sit and pat a tiger.