The Curious Case of Tiger Temple: A Month Long Volunteering Experiment

Deep in Western Thailand, in the forests near the border with Myanmar (Burma), rests a forest monastery, but not just any monastery, Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua, better known as – Tiger Temple. It is a temple that has grown from a simple place of worship by a handful of Buddhist monks who took in a single tiger in 1999, into an expansive “sanctuary” with 122 tigers to date. Since then it has become one of the most popular, and controversial, tourist destinations in all of Southeast Asia.

tiger temple The Curious Case of Tiger Temple: A Month Long Volunteering Experiment

 

The Tiger Temple Controversy

sad tiger The Curious Case of Tiger Temple: A Month Long Volunteering Experiment

Any Google search or internet perusing will yield countless articles and wildly varying accounts and opinions on this mysterious place – from Animal Planet’s video series in 2004 showcasing the Indochinese tigers and the wonders of the monks nurturing and interacting with these mythical and threatened creatures, to conservation groups’ call to arms with their accusations against the temple, which range from physical abuse and malnourishment to drugging and even partaking in the illegal, black market tiger trade. The close proximity in which tourists are able to interact with the tigers lends itself to both a unique, yet potentially dangerous experience, but at the same time a criticism of the animals’ rights.

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Tourist up close for Tiger photos

 

cute tiger cub The Curious Case of Tiger Temple: A Month Long Volunteering Experiment

Tourists may play with tiger cubs

 

Coming into close proximity with any wild animal, particularly tigers, poses an inherent danger. To address this danger tourists are required to sign a waiver relieving the Tiger Temple of responsibility before entering the grounds and are instructed not to wear bright clothes, sunglasses, hats or kneel in front of the tigers. Despite this, there still remain several instances of injuries and maulings every year (the most recent here). The temple’s transformation from a modest forest monastery serving as a simple place of refuge, to a full-blown wildlife sanctuary housing a myriad of animals along with a volunteer program run by Westerners, which includes a full-time veterinarian and a large organization of local staff to run the visitor operations has raised eyebrows amongst observers and begs the obvious question: Why is a Buddhist monastery operating a full scale wildlife project?

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Tiger Temple’s Abbot hydrates a tiger before it walks with tourists

 

Balancing the Tiger Temple Controversy Opinions – The Supporters

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The monks are host to a full scale wildlife park

Advocates laud the temple’s willingness to take in refuged tigers and provide an alternative to more mainstream and traditional attempts at conservation of Southeast Asia’s endangered tiger population.  The abbot of the Tiger Temple envisions expanding the temple’s sanctuary project further, with the goal of buying a large amount of land (40,000 acres with an additional option of 120,000 more)to eventually re-train the offspring of future generations of bred-in-captivity tigers to be able to hunt and be in the “wild”. Tourists who visit the temple – in droves – have mixed experiences, however many who choose to come leave feeling that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to get up close and experience these animals like no other setting can offer. For those, they feel that the animals seem to be well looked after and cared for, and their donations to the temple’s expansion project – while grand and untraditional by Western conservation methods – is a bold attempt to tackle the dwindling numbers of the endangered tiger population in Southeast Asia. Current and former volunteers of the temple, like visitors, also remain mixed on their feelings about the temple and its project. The temple’s ardent volunteer supporters point out that while the temple is not perfect, it is taking steps in the right direction, including educating local communities that tigers are worth more alive than dead (a common reason to kill and sell parts by local tribes), increasing the number of enclosures and enrichment activities for the tigers, and that no “matter what you do with animals, there is going to be controversy“

tiger exercise program The Curious Case of Tiger Temple: A Month Long Volunteering Experiment

Tourists participating in the tiger exercise program

On the Offensive – The Critics

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Tigers wait for tourists chained to the perimeter of the temple’s sala each morning

Critics see a very different story. Conservation groups, wild life experts, and an assortment of international journalists – claim that the temple is nothing more than a tiger farm for profit, whose “conservation” claims are not only unfeasible, but are completely baseless. The most damning of reports comes from Care for the Wild,which sites an entire gamut of offensives against the temple, ranging from the illegal tiger trade to the cruel treatment and conditions in which the tigers are held. The type of tiger that is being bred there is in fact captive and of a  hybrid genetic type that does nothing to support increasing the wild tiger population now, or in the future – and if anything – may lead tourists to leave thinking that tigers are not in fact reaching critically low numbers in the wild. While some visitors leave happily with their cute tiger photos, others leave with an entirely different impression. “Glorified petting zoo”, “tourist trap” and “circus” are not uncommon interpretations by more critical visitors. One of the most condemning voices of the temple and its project is not a tourist, but a former volunteer, Sybelle Foxcroft, who volunteered at the temple in 2007 and worked undercover with Care for the Wild foundation to investigate the conduct of staff and the treatment of the tigers.

 

sleeping tiger The Curious Case of Tiger Temple: A Month Long Volunteering Experiment

Tigers on display in the Canyon of Tiger Temple for tourist photos

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Tigers resting in their cages on Tiger Island

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Tigers in cages eyeing with curiousity the cubs in the next cage over

 

The Sad State of the Wild Tiger

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With threats ranging from habitat loss due to human deforestation to the profits which come from the poaching of the tigers – whose parts are used in traditional Chinese medicines because they are believed to have magical powers, and thus fetch lofty black market prices – the destructive rate in which we see Southeast Asia’s tiger population disappearing in the wild has risen sharply. The World Wildlife Fund reports we have lost 97% of wild tigers in the last century, which estimates there are as few as 3,200 tigers existing in the wild today. Indeed, at no other time in history have wild animals faced such destructive forces and grim future prospects than they currently do at the hands of human action, or for some, inaction. It is forecasted that the wild tiger population may be extinct altogether by the year 2022, the next year of the Tiger, if no action is taken.

tiger decline The Curious Case of Tiger Temple: A Month Long Volunteering Experiment

 

 

parts The Curious Case of Tiger Temple: A Month Long Volunteering Experiment

Parts of tigers are believed to be magical in China, and thus fetch profits

Volunteering at Tiger Temple

I have never visited Tiger Temple before. I heard about it through a friend, who when mentioning the brief context of such a mysterious place – tigers, Buddhist monks, temples, tigers, Thailand, volunteer program, tigers – naturally, my curiosity was piqued.  But what does volunteering with tigers have to do my quest to find my muse? That profession I am destined to finally find in order to discover my life’s purpose. Well – first off – I am no stranger when it comes to a love of animals.

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Volunteering at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand

Granted, I am not overly fond of the one’s that can gnaw my arm off with one bite, nor is my dear sweet mother apparently, but regardless, I am a fan. My brief stint volunteering with elephants in Thailand has blossomed into love and renewed sense of commitment to understand more about wildlife and do what I can to help animals of all shapes and varieties. However, it was an experience that also altered the way I view zoos and conservation. Second, I am one that likes to explore all sides of a story and form my own opinion. While there are plenty of reviews that praise the temple, from both visitors and past employees alike, and even more news media reports decrying and flaming the temple and its mission, I thought it would be prudent to experience it myself – not only to investigate the current state of the temple, but to be able to face and challenge my own beliefs about animal welfare, conservation and what role do humans play with animals in this shared planet of ours. And last, but not least, did I mention – ah…that you get work with tigers?

tiger cub playing The Curious Case of Tiger Temple: A Month Long Volunteering Experiment

I do not know what my experience volunteering at Tiger Temple will yield. Will it be another eye opening adventure and ignite a newfound love for these majestic felines and a possible new career at the end of the rainbow? Or will I go down a deep rabbit hole like Alice and discover animal exploitation and the harsh reality of what happens when conservation meets tourism in this day and age? I don’t know what lies ahead, but maybe, just maybe – I will find that life is not just about finding a definitive truth or a definite lie, but more about coming to terms with the gray that lives in between. #tigertemple

tiger cub The Curious Case of Tiger Temple: A Month Long Volunteering Experiment

About Turner

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.

31 Responses to The Curious Case of Tiger Temple: A Month Long Volunteering Experiment

  1. Katie September 9, 2013 at 1:22 pm #

    I love this. I have read accounts from visitors to the Tiger Temple that go both ways and I have read a lot of the criticism from wildlife groups. So I am very curious to hear how it goes and what you find out. When do you start?
    Katie recently posted…14 Things to Do Before 40My Profile

    • Turner September 9, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

      Yeah. I can’t think of a place that has more wildly varying opinions about it. Wildlife groups on the one side with many tourists and many tourists, volunteers, Western staff on the other. I began August 1st, so I am just now releasing my daily recount so that alleviate any bias/conflict of interest.
      Turner recently posted…The Curious Case of Tiger Temple: A Month Long Volunteering ExperimentMy Profile

  2. Pierre September 9, 2013 at 5:27 pm #

    This is an extraordinary et creative way to immerge inside Thailand. Love it altough I think I wouldn’t be able to do the same.
    Pierre recently posted…Burning ManMy Profile

    • Turner September 10, 2013 at 7:50 pm #

      Yes. Seeing the world by doing jobs in general is an extremely interesting way to see the world.I am hooked.

  3. Michele September 9, 2013 at 10:00 pm #

    Wow, love this. All of the background info explaining both sides is really interesting. This reminds me, in a way, of the plight of the orangutans and how their numbers are dwindling fast. I think it’s more political than tourist controversy though, but the same in that they’re being rehabilitated and their dwindling forests. I saw a place listed online a few years ago where you could volunteer hands-on with them in Borneo, which sounded amazing, since well I love all things monkey related, but then my conscience kind of took over. Like if they are trying to get them back into the wild, then why are people allowed to handle them? Every other place I heard of doesn’t allow that, just viewing them at their feeding platform, so I was surprised to find the one where you could interact with them. Anyways, sorry for rambling, but it just seemed a bit similar to me. I’d be curious to hear what your thoughts are on this and if you heard anything when you were living in Thailand. Do you ever plan to go to Borneo since you love animals so much?

    • Turner September 10, 2013 at 7:55 pm #

      Yeah. The quote from one of the temple’s main volunteers hits the nail on the head with “there is always controversy when you deal with animals”. I have heard a bit about the orangutans plight but have never been to Borneo. It is def. on the list.

      • Michele September 11, 2013 at 3:36 pm #

        So true. Good for the volunteer for saying that. Yeah, Borneo is definitely on my list, too. Obviously. Looking forward to reading the rest of your posts about the Tiger Temple! I’ll be in your area (Seattle) next week. :)

        • Turner September 20, 2013 at 6:15 pm #

          Yes. The issue is complex. But regardless it should not over shadow the desperate need to do more to help tigers in the wild.

          Thanks for writing in Michele.
          Turner recently posted…Photos of the Week: Enter the Tiger cubsMy Profile

  4. Olivia September 9, 2013 at 10:42 pm #

    I get the controversy – how can you really know what the truth is? That said, it sounds like an amazing opportunity. Looking forward to hearing more about it.

  5. Julie McNamee September 10, 2013 at 12:06 am #

    Can’t wait to find out how this goes. The more information we have about this sort of sanctuary, the better.
    Julie McNamee recently posted…5 Unusual Cultural Customs Around the WorldMy Profile

  6. Kristin Addis September 10, 2013 at 12:14 am #

    I honestly didn’t realize it was at a monastery. I always figured the tigers had to be drugged because, duh, why wouldn’t an adult tiger claw my face off if unless she was too cloudy to realize some tasty human is laying on her? Especially if I was just playing with her cub. Just seems impossible that they’re not drugged, even though countless backpackers in Thailand tried to insist to me that they weren’t. Their proof? That’s what “they were told.” Hmm, ok.

    You have a lot of background info and a truly objective opinion you’re going in with, so I look forward to your thoughts!

    • Turner September 10, 2013 at 7:57 pm #

      Yeah. There is a lot of misinformation and confusion out there for sure about this place, from both inside and outside. It is really fascinating to be honest.

  7. Virginia Allwood September 10, 2013 at 10:14 am #

    My sister visited the temple a few years ago and when she posted the pictures on Facebook, I was in complete awe about the whole thing. On the one hand I thought it was fantastic to be able to approach and let alone cuddle a tiger, but seeing her small frame right next to an enormous tiger, make me think that something weird was going on, how can they not react at all? When I finally spoke to her trip to Thailand, she said it was of course a fabulous experience, but she’s also convinced they’re absolutely “drugged up to their eyeballs”. Does it make it a bad thing? Is it a necessary evil to help save the tiger population? I guess I’ll have to wait for your side of the story to find out! I really look forward to reading you! Good luck :D

    • Turner September 15, 2013 at 3:19 pm #

      It is definitely a controversial issue. What makes it even more so is that fact, that even with the same set of circumstances people can interpret events in very different ways. I hope to present a view that is as fair, truthful to my perception, and balanced as possible.
      Turner recently posted…Volunteering with Tigers: The Not-So Undercover Tiger InvestigatorMy Profile

  8. Noah @ Somewhere Or Bust September 10, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

    I visited one of the Tiger attractions and couldn’t really decide if they were drugged or not. I was, however, shocked by some of the people who went into the cage with the tigers and by the clothes they wore during their visit. They had to have been on drugs to wear animal print shirts, specifically animal prints that would remind a tiger of their natural prey.
    Noah @ Somewhere Or Bust recently posted…Misadventures in Southeast Asia: A Free Travel EbookMy Profile

    • Turner September 10, 2013 at 7:59 pm #

      The shirts are a bit ridiculous. They are really thick and heavy as well. It is like wearing a jacket.

  9. Runaway Jane September 10, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

    Whilst I think the Tigers are beautiful and I’m sure (at least I hope) this place started with good intentions, for me tying any wild animal up in chains and wait for tourists to come is misguided at best and cruel at worst. It’s a wild animal. This is not its natural habitat and I don’t think it can be good for the mental or physical state of the tiger. I also just think it’s stupid to have tourists running around beside animals that can, as you say, take your arm off! I know sometimes health and safety goes a bit mad and pernickety in the west but surely this is a case of genuinely bad health and safety practices for humans if not also the tigers?
    Runaway Jane recently posted…How to get from Buenos Aires (Ezeiza) Airport to the City CentreMy Profile

    • Turner September 15, 2013 at 3:20 pm #

      Yeah. There are many issues here to explore beyond just the “drugging one”. I hope to shed some light on from a layman’s perspective.

  10. Heather September 10, 2013 at 6:40 pm #

    I’m very interested to see how your opinions shape up! I’m not particularly convinced by people going undercover like Care for the Wild to find proof to support a pre-formed opinion; I’m sure nothing the undercover volunteer saw would dissuade Care for the Wild from their path. That being said, I’m sure it’s not all sunshine and roses either.
    I think you’ll have a neutral view, and I’d like to see what you think about the Tiger Temple after working there.
    Heather recently posted…Can You Do It? Using Public Transportation in Lusaka ZambiaMy Profile

    • Turner September 10, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

      Yes, it is hard to be objective sometimes. People tend to believe what they want to believe. We are emotional creatures of habit. I think there are many sides to look at here.

  11. Red Hunt September 11, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

    One thing I’m curious about….as a volunteer do you really get an inside-look at the operations? Or are you controlled / limited to specific areas and duties?
    If there are parts of the Tiger Temple and aspects of Tiger care that volunteers are not allowed to be part of then I would seriously think there may be sketchy things going on.
    I’ve heard mostly negative reviews and haven’t really looked into it very deeply, but I do feel sorry for the tigers.
    Red Hunt recently posted…Birds of Bundala National ParkMy Profile

    • Turner September 15, 2013 at 3:22 pm #

      Yeah. Good points. As a volunteer, you do have access to most everything. But is impossible to truly ever know. Which is why I am leery of claims without evidence. Regardless, if you look at just the issue itself, there is enough going on to think and question. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  12. TammyOnTheMove September 11, 2013 at 11:39 pm #

    I have heard a lot of bad things about this particular temple too, so will be very interested to find out what it is really like. There is a similar place like that in Chiang Mai, which seems to get less stick.
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted…Capture the colour competition 2013My Profile

    • Turner September 15, 2013 at 3:24 pm #

      The one in Chiang Mai is actually Tiger Kingdom. Which to my knowledge, two exist (Chiang Mai and Phucket). This however is a different place under a different premise. I went to Tiger Kingdom as well and will talk about both. Playing catch up now.

  13. Lauren Metzler September 12, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

    I just found your blog and I absolutely love it! You are brilliant! And I think this investigation into the Tiger Temple is a great adventure! I lived in Thailand for three years and heard so many of the stories, but I would’ve loved to had the chance to volunteer! :D
    Lauren Metzler recently posted…Guest Post: Ted Swagerty of Resiliency RisingMy Profile

    • Turner September 15, 2013 at 3:25 pm #

      Thanks for stopping in Lauren. Hope you enjoyed Thailand. Yes, it is turning out to be a bigger adventure than I had originally thought.

  14. Adam Finan September 12, 2013 at 11:31 pm #

    I hope you get some good research into this Turner. I’m not all for chaining them up to play show and tell for tourists. I fucking hate Zoo’s and think that animals should be left to wander freely. But on the flip side, if the tiger is going to end up as a rug on some fats living room floor then you know…. hanging with monks is a better life!
    Adam Finan recently posted…Waterfalls In The Catlin’s New ZealandMy Profile

    • Turner September 15, 2013 at 3:25 pm #

      Ergo why the place is a big question mark. Looking deeper into it now.

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