05 Nov The Reality of Tiger Temple: My Final Thoughts on my Volunteering Experiment
Okay. So anyone who follows my site on the regular (high five by the way) may be perplexed at the abrupt end of my Tiger Temple posts. Well the truth of the matter is that I intended on writing a 20-something post series on it, however, whether it be my ADD, simply losing interest, lack of audience enthusiasm at non-stop coverage, or probably most aptly – the mixed emotions I still struggle with about the place and the experience – caused me to want to move on. I try to keep my site as much as possible light, satirical, and rambling incessantly about interesting travel jobs, work opportunities and experiences abroad. So it was hard to keep my usual tone and attitude.
At the moment I have a million and half posts to catch up on about weird and exciting jobs that I have undertaken since leaving Tiger Temple prematurely, however, to be fair, I should state my final thoughts on Tiger Temple and my experience there so that those interested in the topic can make up their own minds. People see cute cub photos and just jump to the conclusion that all is rosy and it is experience of a lifetime, without reading the subtext and asking the bigger questions. However, as I have previously mentioned, my initial intent of volunteering at Tiger Temple, despite its controversy, was to see what was really going on behind the scenes and to make up my own mind (and not formulate some righteous one-sided opinion denouncing others with never having been there or only spending a few hours as a tourist there).
If there is going to be a take away from this post it would be simply that: People believe what they want to believe, or as one of the head Western staff put it, “whenever you mess with animals you are going to have controversy”.
So here goes:
Tiger Temple Abuse: Is Tiger Temple drugging the tigers?
I don’t know. As a volunteer there, it would be impossible to know for sure as you only have access to so much, in a relatively brief period of time. You can never be for sure about anything. Some tourists who come, and likewise, a lot of TripAdvisor aficionados (see: people who don’t know what the fuck they are talking about) proclaim divine knowledge on the subject shout: “Yes, they are without a doubt drugged”. Similarly, many previous volunteers state, as is the party line given when working at Tiger Temple: Tigers are nocturnal, they sleep 20 hours a day, they are well fed and it is hot outside so they are sleepy in the sun, etc. Check the post: “Does Tiger Temple Drug Tigers” for more on this.
I battled with this notion when I was there. The tigers look so incredibly passed out; lethargic, lazy-eyed, staggered walking etc. it would be an easy conclusion to reach. As the temple officially states, they only use tranquilizers when providing emergency medical attention and on annual medical check ups, however, this doesn’t eliminate the possibility for a natural sedative/plant to be given to them. It would be however, in my opinion, more dangerous on some level to drug cats daily, as it makes them less predictable. There are 122 tigers there at present, so they do tend to pick the 12 tigers that are most human and cat friendly for display. This does not eliminate safety concerns.
Again, I don’t, nor would anyone who isn’t a true insider or expert who can examine them, really know. I am 60/40 that the tigers are not drugged. My first experience with a big tiger’s massive head sitting in my lap, seemingly lifeless, led me to think: “Yes, definitely drugged”. But then the next day, I walked a little bit to close to a cat that was in sleep mode, as we advise tourists not to do, and it pounced to life and was very much aware. In conclusion, I could see it go either way.
Does Tiger Temple Abuse Tigers?
This is a bit more on the opinion side. Being chained down daily for tourists on display hardly seems like a nice thing to do to an animal. Horrible in fact. However, where I throw my bullshit flag on animal rights people is when you see photos of the “exercise program”, with either tourists, or later in the day, the tiger staff using a stick with a bag on it to get the tigers to chase it and go on big jumps off rocks, decrying the temple for abusing the tigers, I have to kindly beg the differ. This is “enrichment”. The tigers are stimulated and it is exercise for them. If anything, the abuse would be in that not all of the 122 tigers get to do this on the regular.
Occasionally if you spend time there you will see some of the staff teasing tigers in some way (tickling their nose with a twig whilst sleeping, etc.) or pulling the tigers tail, this also is annoying, unnecessary and uncomfortable to view. But not surprising when you are staffed by an overall undereducated body of people with minimal oversight, a tedious job, and lack of leadership in management.
On the facility front, Tiger Temple has expanded its facility greatly in the last 5 years and now many of the tigers have an outdoor area with water spots that change, which is also good for enrichment. These areas are better than what I have seen in most zoos. However, I do not know how much time every tiger gets out there and if it is as regular as they claim it is. Likewise, there are still some fairly small cages with 5 tigers in there, which is unacceptable.
On the food front, the tigers are given boiled chicken and fed, a lot, probably too much, which is why some are overweight. Unfortunately, tigers need red meat to get the enzyme taurine, which they need for muscle development. The claim that it is too expensive to feed them red meat because in Thailand red meat is expensive, could carry some weight, if they weren’t building that Vatican like temple outside first from the “tourist donations” as a priority in the hierarchy of expenditures.
On the cub front, I find it also appalling that the cubs are taken from their mother as early as 2 weeks and then offered up to the tourists. Yes, it is true that tigers are solitary animals, but they usually don’t leave their mother until the two-year mark. For me it was probably the most uncomfortable part of volunteering at Tiger Temple – hearing squealing baby tigers as tourist molest them for photos.
One of the other lingering questions I was left with was also why, if Tiger Temple is losing money on the operation as they claim, do they continue to let the tigers breed? At any given time, there are 3-5 cubs coming in. The response to this query was, “We don’t believe in interfering with them…let nature take its course”. Well – this is in fact in line with their belief in not-euthanizing any of the animals on the premises (Buddhist precept, “do not kill”, let things be as they are), no matter how sick, but it doesn’t seem to stick with me as you can easily just separate the tigers. Why do you need 122 tigers and continue to the let the rabbit-like breeding continue if you are losing money?
Is Tiger Temple a conservation project and helping to preserve tigers for future generations?
Now this is where I am going to throw my bullshit flag at Tiger Temple. I do not believe this is a conservation project. Conservation projects promote the well being of the animals in captivity, instill education about the animal, and fund protecting the animal in the wild. And while they do a decent job on some of the outdoor areas for enrichment and supposedly educating the local populace about the idea of tigers being worth more alive than dead (deterring poaching), the money garnered from any activities should all go back into the animals. As I stated previously, Tiger Temple’s first priority is building a massive, Vatican like Buddhist temple outside, then it goes back into the tigers. This didn’t sit well with me as it runs contrary to conservation, at least the Western ideal of it. The stated goal of Tiger Temple to eventually free the tigers, re-train them to hunt like in the wild and set them loose on a reserve, in my view, is a ridiculous claim, as it hasn’t been achieved by experts with other species, much less by some monks and a staff lacking formally educated experts. I don’t recall seeing any education center or big displays talking about tiger education.
More On General Animal Welfare
As mentioned above, there is no euthanizing of animals as it goes against the “do not kill” Buddhist precept. There are tons of different kinds of animals around Tiger Temple, in various conditions. They are fed well daily. However, there are some pretty sick animals running around the place, and while some may consider the Western approach to euthanizing a bit trigger happy, to see an animal in utter agony suffer when they are on your turf and care seems….well, you get the idea. This entire point just seems like the issue when Buddhism meets Western standards and ideals of conservation. Due to financial constraints, there is only one head vet (unless a volunteer is also one at any given time), so there is a lot to manage for such a facility. If only they had more money…wait, what about that temple construction again?
As I stated above, people believe what they want to believe. I think most of the Western staff believe in what they are doing, are dedicated and really care about the tigers. As per the volunteer program, most of the volunteers are nice and well intentioned, but are for the most part undereducated (in their 20s) especially in regard to wildlife/biology etc. (myself included) and non-critical in thinking about what is going on and seem most interested in the idea of being around adorable tiger cubs than the bigger questions on conservation, ethics, etc.. I could see the mentality pretty quickly, it reminded me a lot of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, where people start to take on their assigned roles. I could see this developing in my first few days there when one of the other volunteers who was explaining things about the temple to me, started using the “We” form. “At Tiger Temple, we do…”- this volunteer had only been there two weeks. As per the Thai staff, it is their country and culture and it would be morally and culturally presumptuous to impose my largely Western influenced ideology on them. I think some really love the tigers and have dedicated years to them and feel that they are their children almost. While for others it is just a job. It is rather telling that some of the local populace in the nearby town of Kanchanaburi are a bit leerily of the temple with some referring to it as the Tiger Business.
Is Tiger Temple Involved in the Illegal Tiger Trade?
There is only so much a volunteer, or even a full time Western staff member for that matter, would actually learn about what really goes on there, and I still don’t really know. As I stated before I began this entire volunteering experiment, I am not one to just jump on the opinions of others and do not make accusations without substantiated evidence. The entire topic is well above my pay grade, and as I stated, the seriousness of it all is one of the reasons I stopped writing about it as it didn’t fit with my usual satirical, unintelligible prose. That being said, I attempted to do my due diligence in order to learn more about it as I am fascinated with helping animals and conservation. I had initially contacted and was in talks with some real experts on the matter (who I won’t name, but you could figure it out), but they got tight lipped when I got more specific about where I was and what I was interested in. I am still waiting to hear back and will update this should I get a response (don’t hold your breath). I guess people don’t want to rock the boat especially if it would impair their ability to accomplish their real mission of helping to protect tigers in the wild. I don’t know if the reports that were previously made against Tiger Temple are true or not, but if you connect the dots with the above information (ie, 3-5 cubs at any given time, tigers are no longer cute little pups at 4 months, Tiger Temple has been open for like 15 years, etc) it begs the question: Where are the rest of the tigers?
Why I left Tiger Temple
The volunteer program at Tiger Temple is for 30 days minimum. Some stay for months. Me, I left after 18 days. I left for many reasons: 1) I was not able to continue up with my site and other online work due to the time commitment (7am-6pm daily) 2) My values are not inline with what is going on there 3) blowback from Western staff at me for asking too many questions 4) Boredom (ie, tourist wrangling for photo opps, tiger shit clean up, whining baby tigers – day in, day out 5) I didn’t feel like I was helping tigers but merely was a cog keeping a tourist attraction machine going 6) I got tired of sleeping on mats on the floor with mosquitos, frogs, centipedes and scorpions as roommates (what a diva).
My Final Thoughts on Tiger Temple
In summation, I do not believe that Tiger Temple is a conservation project. I felt more like I was volunteering at a Jurassic Park run by 20 year olds, where I had to coral tourists daily. My view is that whole basis of the volunteer program in general is to act as a first line of defense to pacify and communicate with the tourists who do come and let them feel more comfortable with the whole idea. Many commentators on Tiger Temple debate the ethics of Tiger Temple, whether or not the tigers are abused as well as the overall ramifications for and reality of the temple’s conservation project, but for me, these overshadow the more important question: How do we help protect the 3,200 wild tigers left in the world? In the next 10 years wild tigers are likely to face extinction due to not having a diversified enough gene pool to carry on due to poaching and habitat loss – primarily from the tiger parts being high in demand in China for their believed magical, medicinal powers. In the USA alone, there are over 10,000 captive tigers that people have as pets (Mike Tyson, crazy people that have their own zoo), so the world needs more wild tigers and to do everything in our power to protect the wild ones that we do have.
And the last question I will leave here with is the first one I proposed before I began my volunteering experiment: Why are a bunch of Buddhist monks in a forest monastery running and expanding a full scale “wildlife sanctuary”?
The above is merely my opinion, which of course is influenced by my biases and Western upbringing and limited since I am not an expert on anything. I tried my best to be as objective as possible, yet tried to be critical and as pensive in what I observed. I guess at the end of the day this post and my opinion will not be a popular one. To the staunch animal rights and conservationists, my belief that Tiger Temple is improving its habitat facilities and its enrichment programs are a positive thing doesn’t sing to their message. And to the folks at Tiger Temple, I am just a dipshit blogger who came in to the volunteering program with his own agenda and preconceived notions of what he believes about the happenings there and never really liked tigers (I do like them, but from a distance). I do not think anyone is the devil for wanting to take cute tiger cub photos, or to want to volunteer at Tiger Temple, I would just hope that if you choose to do so, that you are mindful of what role you wish to take in helping to protect the few tigers we do have in the wild.