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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
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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).
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.
The Afternoon Duty: The Canyon
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.