The Joys of Free Volunteering in Thailand: Tiger Piss, Fur Balls and Excrement

free volunteering at Tiger Temple in Thailand

Ah Free Volunteering: Holding back my tears of excitement holding a wailing tiger cub

As I was quick to discover, there is no such thing as free volunteering, especially when it is free volunteering in Thailand. Every day the volunteers at Tiger Temple are tasked with bringing the tiger cubs to the sala (temple) where they meet the eager tourist hordes in the morning. My first day I had to walk a four month old that pulled me in every direction, but today, I got to take the six week old cub, or perhaps I should say, had to take the six week old cub. It screamed, it scratched and it shit…all over me. When we got to the temple, I began to feel more and more distant to the cats. Everyone else was busy having cuddle sessions and bonding; they felt at ease, while I just felt like I didn’t want to force myself onto this creature. People make the argument the tigers are just like any other creature. All babies cry, all children whine, and cats run away, but it is still hard for me to swallow that pill. The loud squeal that the really small cubs at three weeks old make makes me cringe. It just feels different, or maybe the animals can sense my apprehension and act accordingly. Or maybe they just hate me.

Free Volunteering in Thailand: The Morning Chore Clean Up…it ain’t so free

 

Clean up duty. Loving it.

Free volunteering in Thailand: Clean up duty. Loving it.

A typical day volunteering at Tiger Temple is broken into two parts: morning chores dealing with tigers and afternoon chores dealing with tourists. It is difficult to say which one is shittier. Unlike my first day of drawing the glorious afternoon duty of monitoring the cub cage, today my morning duty was the not-so-glorious duty of cleaning up tiger shit.  I spent two hours cleaning up cat excrement, fur balls, chicken bones and sludge from all of the tigers that live on Tiger Island. It is bizarre walking through a maze of cages with animals that can kill you with one swipe of their paw.

Tiger alley needs daily cleaning

Tiger alley needs daily cleaning

Left overs

Left overs

And you thought taking out the garbage was bad

And you thought taking out the garbage was bad

There are roars, growls of intimidation, scuffing (indicating ‘hello’) and stares by mysterious eyes.  The cats are divided in cages by temperament: human-friendly, cat-friendly, human and cat friendly, and man haters that are absolutely terrifying. And in case you were wondering what the delightful tiger piss smells like – think ammonia. Pungent.

The stares from the tigers can feel mysterious, and friendly, but also terrifying. For me anyway.

The stares from the tigers can feel mysterious, and friendly, but also terrifying. For me anyway.

 

 Hey guys, try to double check that the locks on the cages, the staff sometimes forget to lock them and then these big ones can get out. And guess who takes the blame?

 

Tiger cage with an accidental forgetting of locking up.

Tiger cage with an accidental forgetting of locking up.

Use me please

Use me please

 

Reassuring to know. After 2 hours wading through shit, we spent the rest of the morning with the cubs – first playing with the little ones then taking the four month olds out in the enclosures behind their cages.

 Don’t let them wander off. We need to keep them enclosed. If they run away they can get into the big cat cages and will most definitely die.

 

The Daily Duty: Crowd Control

 

Tiger tourists time

Tiger tourists time

Regardless of a volunteer’s afternoon duty, all volunteers report to center of Tiger Temple’s grounds (the Waterfall) where the afternoon tourists arrive and take photos with 12 of the medium sized to large tigers that are chained to ground. Almost immediately upon being walked to their spot, the cats lie down and seemingly pass out. Meanwhile, a monk goes around and squirts water in the mouths of the cats. It is a pretty strange scene, as you have chained tigers seemingly passed out in a comatose state, a monk up close in the danger zone petting the giant cats, and Thai staff taking photos of tourists as the tourists pose behind the chained cat, sometimes even holding up the cat’s tail. This is the scene that jars most tourists when they first arrive, and leads many to the conclusion that the tigers must be drugged.

monk with baby tiger

tiger temple abbot

tiger temple drugged cat

The volunteers for the next hour play the role of tourist bouncer, responsible for keeping tourists a safe distance away from the tigers and making sure they follow Tiger Temple’s guidelines: no flash photography (hurts cats’ eyes), no crouching down in front of tigers (makes them want to pounce on you as prey), no turning their back to tigers (again, makes them want to pounce on you as prey), and no crying babies (stirs tigers’ hunting/prey interest/annoys the general populace).

 

Keeping the tourists back

Keeping the tourists back

A tiger taking a cat nap

A tiger taking a cat nap

So are the tigers the drugged?

I hear a tourist ask another volunteer.

No, tigers are nocturnal animals, so they are mainly awake at night. They, like house cats, sleep 15-18 hours a day. They have been well fed and it is the hottest part of they day so they are sleepy and lazy right now. They also have been hand reared from birth by humans, so they are basically giant house cats.

 

This is the general response that volunteers give to tourists who ask the common and most glaring question: Does Tiger Temple drug tigers?

I thought about the response. It certainly made more sense than what the temple had told us the day before with our orientation video. It made sense; maybe the tigers aren’t drugged.

When one o’clock strikes, a lead Western staff member (there are 4) takes a microphone and riles up the crowd.

 Ladies and Gentlemen in a few minutes, we are going to lead the big cats down to the Canyon. This is the opportunity for you to take a walk with one of the big tigers and get a photo. However, I ask that you please stay in a single file line and only go one at a time to take your photo. Beware of the cat squatting down; they have been known to squirt to mark their territory. I would suggest keeping your mouth shut, because I can assure you, it does not taste like grape juice.  And please, do not pass in front of the tiger’s shoulders; we would like to leave today with as many people that came in.

 

Tourists eagerly form a line to be able to walk a big tiger. Guess who my favorite tourists are?

Tourists eagerly form a line to be able to walk a big tiger. Guess who my favorite tourists are?

 

The Afternoon Duty: The Canyon

 

The volunteer is to lead a line of 15 tourists who do not like to listen to instructions

The volunteer is to lead a line of 15 tourists who do not like to listen to instructions

The most common afternoon duty, and the one most hands on with the tourists is working the Canyon.  The tourists are paraded down a hill to the Canyon in a conga-line, taking pictures in rotation with a big tiger and a monk leading the way. The tigers walk slowly, stopping occasionally to piss, squirt backwards to mark their territory, and then piss some more. The volunteers’ job is to yell at the tourists to keep moving while trying to remain cognizant enough of what the cat is doing so as not to take a shot to the face.

The tourists are then led to the bottom of the Canyon where all of the cats, as if on cue, lie down as docile as can be, and wait for the tourist photo opp medley. I spent the next 3 hours sorting tourists into different lines, answering questions, and trying my best not to kill one of the tourists.

 Can I rent a tiger?

If I am on my period, is it safe to go around the tigers?

 

Thai staff take tourists out to pose in photos with cats from 1-430pm daily.

Thai staff take tourists out to pose in photos with cats from 1-430pm daily.

Tiger Temple gets 600-1,000 day. From 1-430pm in peak season the line can stay like this the entire time

Tiger Temple gets 600-1,000 day. From 1-430pm in peak season the line can stay like this the entire time

 

One by one Thai staff take the tourists by the hand and lead them out to the tigers for their photo.  Individual photos are free, however, the Western staff also present the “special photo” opportunity.

Tourists gather at the bottom of the Canyon waiting their photo

Tourists gather at the bottom of the Canyon waiting their photo

Step right up ladies and gentlemen. Don’t be shy. Over on the far left is the free photo line – it is for the free single photo. But for those of you fearless enough, we have a “special photo” opportunity today, for 1,000 baht ($30) you can take a group photo and the bravest, or dumbest member of the group, can have the big cats head in your lap for your photo.

 

From an outsider’s perspective (and for some insiders for that matter), the scene looks like and sounds like a circus. After my second hour, I was exhausted from having to deal with the proletariat and couldn’t understand how people could  volunteer to do this  at Tiger Temple day in and day out for months.

Turner, do you speak Spanish.

Poorly, but a bit.

I walked over and 6 young Spanish guys waited for me.

We wantedddd to knowwwa whereee the nonnee drugga tigggers are a?

I  hesitated. It wasn’t stated as a question but as a matter of fact.

I attempted to tell the Spanish tourists that the tigers’ weren’t drugged.

 Los gatos son noctrunos. Descansan en el noche. En la dia las tigres descarsan para quince horas a dia. Tambien, las tigres viven con humanos, entonce son differentes que tigres en la frontera. Los gatos no tocan druggos.

Sure

The Spaniards said with a smirk on their face.

My colleagues were impressed. Finally they found a use for me. Clearly they didn’t understand any Spanish.

 

Clearly I am not so good at this job

Clearly I am not so good at this job

As the line settled down, one of the Thai staff took me out and had me take a photo with one of the big tigers. Despite being around the temple for three days, I still felt uneasy. As I sat down next to one of the largest tigers, the Thai staff grabbed the big cat’s head and dropped in my lap. Photo after photo, the staff snapped my picture as I sat there, unable to move due to this massive tiger’s head holding me down. My only thought running through my head was:

Anddddd….its  getting weird.

I can't move and there is a giant Tiger head in my lap....

I can’t move and there is a giant Tiger head in my lap….

Turner barr
turnerbarr@gmail.com

Hi, my name is Turner. I travel the world, hustle to find interesting jobs, and write about what happens when you read too many self-help books.

8 Comments
  • Venkat Ganesh @ India Backpack Motorbike
    Posted at 09:23h, 01 October

    Tough job this, I must say. And glad to know that the tigers aren’t drugged. Considering that this is coming from someone who’s been working there I think this piece of information is trustworthy.

    However personally I do think that these big cats should be seen out there in the wild. But then I guess that oppurtunity to have a photo clicked with a tiger head in you lap is something too good to give up for some people.

    Keep up the good work and the good stories coming.

    Cheers
    Venky

    • Turner
      Posted at 06:50h, 07 October

      Hey Venky,

      Just to clarify. I am only in my first week here, and am not sure how I feel yet. The above highlights what the temple volunteers say as well as how my opinion is on the day.

  • Alex | Partial Parallax
    Posted at 19:38h, 01 October

    It truly does sound a surreal experience and viewing the circus from the other-side must make for an entirely different view of the place. Although it sounds like hard and tiring work it does also sound like a very good experience and one that gives you a unique look into this popular tourist trap.

    • Turner
      Posted at 06:55h, 07 October

      Very surreal. Tiring mostly from redundancy and dealing with tourists.

  • Audrey
    Posted at 23:54h, 03 October

    The title couldn’t be any more appealing, Turner! 😉

    • Turner
      Posted at 06:48h, 07 October

      🙂 You should have seen the first 5 I threw out…

  • Volunteering with Animals in Southeast Asia: Animals Galore
    Posted at 15:54h, 08 October

    […] larger ears, elongated toes, or a third eye. And lastly, I may have alluded to that, in addition to cleaning up tiger dung and super-sized fur balls on the regular, you may from time to time work in some other capacity with the other aforementioned […]

  • Tamara
    Posted at 02:16h, 14 October

    HI,

    It was great reading how your going, as I will be volunteering there in November for a month. A month to me is a bit crazy though? I love Tigers so I’m thinking it won’t fase me that much. I am wondering about the accomodation though? I know girls are seperate from the boys, but im assuming the bedding is the same? Is it decent? Decent sized mattress and sheets?

    Cheers 🙂
    Tamara