Working at Tiger Temple - Day 1 Part II
Outfitted in my new, grossly oversized Tiger Temple volunteer shirt, I entered the temple’s grounds. Unlike many who work at the temple, I had never been before, nor did I know of anyone who had volunteered there either. I hadn’t spent much time examining photos online or doing copious amounts of research trying to figure out the entire experience before I walked through the door. I wanted to experience Tiger Temple through my own virgin eyes as much as possible – without all the media white noise.
I wasn’t quite sure how many animals, or what kind of animals besides tigers, were kept at the temple.
Unfortunately the previous volunteers did a shit job cleaning up, so we will have to sort it later.
My soon to be living quarters were in fact more of a storage room it seemed, coming with complimentary spiders and various other creatures deserving to meet my shoe. We were housed in the old mediation center, which in minimalist Buddhist fashion, was barren and left to grow as it may. I guess I missed the memo about bringing my own inflatable mattress and hazmat suit.
Ok guys, drop your things. Got to start the day. You can get some mats to sleep on from the temple later.
Welcome to Tiger Island
It felt like a scene from Jurassic Park. Two massive door swinging open to a new world. Tiger Island is a system of cages and enclosures in the center of the Tiger Temple with a walled perimeter and a skywalk above it. Cage by cage we went deep into Tiger Island as the volunteer coordinator gave us an overview of the park. As of writing this, there are 122 tigers at Tiger Temple. Tigers are solitary animals. They rarely stay together in the wild, and once tiger cubs are of age and can fully hunt by themselves (capable at 18 months, but usually at 24-30 months), they go away from the mother to live on their own. The tigers in Tiger Island are sorted into cages, sometimes with up to 5 tigers in a cage. As the coordinator explained:
We sort the tigers based on their demeanor. Some tigers are okay with one another, but aren’t human-friendly. Other tigers are human-friendly, but cannot be around other tigers or they will fight. Some tigers are both human-friendly and tiger-friendly.
I was in awe at the sheer size of the cats. At up to 670 pounds, tigers are the largest cat species (430 pounds for Indochinese), but my feelings of awe were overshadowed by a deep sense of apprehension at what lay before me. I had only seen tigers before in zoos, and even then, it was usually just one tiger asleep in the far off distance shaded under some canopy. This was something else entirely. What have I gotten myself into?
After our brief walk through Tiger Island, we all gathered at what was to be the central meeting point before the main group of tourists come in the afternoons: the Waterfall.
And…at 30 seconds…Yeah, where the hell am I?
Getting to Work at Tiger Temple: The daily assignment
Everyday at Tiger Temple, volunteers rotate daily jobs. There is a set of daily chores in the mornings, and in the afternoon, the duties involve interacting with the tourists. My first day I drew the most hands on duty: tiger cub feeding.
Tiger Cub Feeding
As I was to quickly discover, tourists who visit Tiger Temple pay a 600 baht ($20) admission fee to enter the park. In addition, there are number of activities that tourists can purchase once inside: tiger cub feeding (1000 baht/$33), tiger cub exercise program (1000 baht/$33), special group photo (1000 baht/$33) and an evening program (500 baht/$16.50). Tiger cub feeding, as the name describes, means you spend the afternoon with the tourists in the tiger cub cages playing and feeding the tiger cubs. There are four 45 minutes sessions with up to 10 tourists in each session. Before we set out to the cub cages, one of the more senior volunteers explained my responsibilities during cub feeding.
Basically, there are two sets of cages, with the smaller cubs in one and the bigger cubs in the other. When the tourists come in just have the tourists spread out and instruct them to only pick up the cubs if they are sitting down. Just keep an eye out for them [the tourists] doing anything stupid. If you see someone who needs a photo, offer to take it or let the Thai staff handlers inside do it.
Okay. And what do I do if one of the cubs starts biting someone?
Just give the cub a firm slap on the nose. The little ones shouldn’t be too much trouble. The Thai staff will bring out the bottles with the formula and give them to the tourists. So mainly just explain things and help take photos.
Okay. Sounds easy enough.
Yeah. It can be kind of boring. The bigger cubs though you have to go in the cage with the tourists and instruct them not to kneel down. The cubs will jump on people and their bites can hurt. You may have to smack the cubs in the head to ward them off. They play a lot more.
As we approached the cub cages with excited tourists in tow, I could see the cubs spaced out in the cage, passed out sleeping in various positions. The tourists entered the cage in a gleeful trance. They barely heard instructions or had any questions. They were locked in complete wonderment and anticipation at being able to see and play with tiger cubs. The human condition takes over whenever we see babies or cute animals. Baby voices start being used and people attempt to coddle the cubs in a maternal fashion.
So how old are these cute little guys?
A tourist asks me.
Well, the small ones here are about 6 weeks old. The ones in the other cage are about 16 weeks old. Can I take use my camera to take photos? Of course, just make sure that the flash is off as the cats are nocturnal and it can hurt their eyes.
It was weird hearing the words come out of my mouth. I had barely been at the temple for a few hours, yet to these tourists, I was an authority on tigers. The tourists generally asked the same questions, so it was easy to parrot off the information I was given at the start of the day. By the time the third session came around I was already fairly well indoctrinated with what questions would be asked and felt fluid when dishing out responses. From time to time I would move a somewhat passed out cub to a tourist who wasn’t getting any attention. I felt a bit nervous moving the cats. It was my first day and I didn’t want screw up, but at the same time, I don’t like molest animals. By the time the fourth and final session of the day came, I could feel by ADD kick in and started to feel a bit bored in the cub cage. The cubs became increasingly more lethargic and docile each session, as they were full from the being bottle-fed formula every session.
Turner, will you watch the tourists in the larger cubs’ cage please.
I entered the larger cubs cage with a bit more apprehension. While the smaller cubs at 4-6 weeks old were about the size of large house cats, the larger cubs were about the size of medium sized dogs. I hadn’t spent any time with the larger ones yet, so I didn’t have a good sense of how they behaved. In truth, I have never felt extremely comfortable around cats. I am more of a dog person. I have always been hesitant to let my hand nears a cat’s mouth or to pick one up as you never know when they will sink their claws in you or bring out their sharp teeth. Dogs on the other hand, I feel are a bit more predictable.
Ah excuse me, sir
I looked over and saw a cat gnawing on a tourist.
I leapt to action and tried to recall what I had been told about how to handle the tigers. I smacked the tiger in the head. Nothing happened. The tiger kept chewing on the tourist. I then hit him a bit firmer on the head and he let go, unfazed.
As I finished my first day of work at Tiger Temple and marched back to my mosquito den, I reflected on all that I had seen. My emotions were deeply conflicted, with part of me feeling not only trepidation about working so closely with such dangerous and powerful animals, but also uneasy with the entire scene and how casual everything seemed to be treated. Couldn’t these tigers turn on you at any moment? My feelings of unease ran juxtapose to the excitement and rush I felt at experiencing something so unique. The surrealness had me. I had never seen so many tigers before, and certainly I had never dreamt to be in a situation where you could lay down with such an awesomely powerful and dangerous creature, as if it were nothing more than a giant house cat. I was about to live amongst tigers, lions, bears, water buffalo, wild hogs, Buddhist monks, a forest temple, a compound resembling something out of Jurassic Park, and a creepy goat with disturbing full utters that were about ready to explode. Where was I? Because I certainly was not in Kansas anymore. #tigertemple