Money, Drugs & Tigers: Does Tiger Temple Drug Tigers?

Turner Blog, Thailand

In case you missed it, here is what I am doing at Tiger Temple.

I was only halfway through my first official, full day volunteering at Tiger Temple and I had already experienced my first tiger bite, had a tiger take me for a walk on a leash, and learned I would have to fight Thai people on a daily basis to get fed at breakfast. At this point I didn’t think my day could get any stranger; that was until I watched Tiger Temple’s orientation video.

Tiger Temple Speaks Out On Drugging: The Orientation Video

The first question every visitor to asks: Does Tiger Temple drug the tigers?

The first question every visitor to asks: Does Tiger Temple drug the tigers?

On the second day of volunteering at Tiger Temple, the volunteers were taken to the head veterinarian’s office.  Despite having more animals than many zoos, in addition to the 122 tigers (as of August 2013), Tiger Temple only has one general practitioner veterinarian on staff at the facility, unless there happens to a be a volunteer who is a vet at any given time.  For “special guests” visiting the temple as well as for new volunteers, the temple presents a one hour video that explains the history of Tiger Temple’ origins (Animals Planet’s video series about the temple is similar), the current state of the tiger in the wild, and the current status of the temple and its conservation project.  I was extremely interested to hear the official temple’s position, as most sources available online about Tiger Temple tend to focus on recounting Care for the Wild International’s damning report of the temple from 5 years prior to stories of any current tiger attacks to random reviews that can be found from previous volunteers (unverified). The temple’s position seemed fairly tight lipped, at least in terms of media coverage of it, as the bulk of these sources heavily focus on the accusation side – Does Tiger Temple drug tigers? Is Tiger Temple safe?  Is Tiger Temple taking part in the illegal tiger trade?  The temple’s defense of the aforementioned accusations usually was only summarized in the articles with a couple of quotes about how tigers  are not being drugged and how the Laos illegal tiger trade was a misunderstanding. Likewise, there was, and still is, a lot ambiguity of where the money the temple makes, referred to as “donations”, goes.

 

Does Tiger Temple Drug the Tigers?

A tiger taking a cat nap? Or a tiger drugged up?

A tiger taking a cat nap? Or a tiger drugged up?

In the video we were shown, unlike other videos available online about Tiger Temple, the temple directly addressed the drugging issue. The temple made a point to state that the only time tranquilizers are used on the tigers is during each tigers’ annual health examination, or if there happens to be an injured tiger and medical treatment is needed. The video goes on to show what the cats look like when tranquilized and how their eyes do not look sedated, but are wide open, as their body remains motionless.  There then was some narratives along the lines of:

 

…You see? It would be impossible for the cats to be drugged. Their eyes are wide open!

My faced cringed. My first gut reaction was well – what about other types of drugs? Sure, that may be the result of what happens to a tiger under tranquilizers, but aren’t there other types of drugs that would make the cats behave differently?

A tiger that is tranquilized has eyes that are wide open yet remains still.

A example of a tiger that is tranquilized. Notice the eyes that are wide open yet remains still. (note – this is not taken at Tiger Temple)

drugged tigers at tiger temple

 

Where Does the Money that Tiger Temple Receives Go?

 

A model of Tiger Temple's new project displayed in the temple's Sala

A model of Tiger Temple’s new project displayed in the temple’s Sala

As I was thinking over the different possibilities of drugging and how it was kind of weird how the video addressed the issue, with such a sharp and pointed discussion just on tranquilizing, the video began talking about the temple’s current project: the construction of a new Tiger Temple.  Tiger Temple has expanded quite a bit in the past few years, with the continued construction of Tiger Island, which houses the 122 cats in the center of the compound. The temple also states that its future vision includes buying 40,000 hectares of land, re-training the tigers to hunt in the wild, and releasing future tigers into the new reserve.  However, what was most jarring about the expansion explanation was to learn that the first monetary priority was to construct a giant new temple with the money donated by tourists.

 

I lifted my hand.

So, this temple that is being constructed – are these just plans for the future? After the reserve is completed and the tigers are released?

No, it is being built now, out in front. To the monks, Buddhism comes first.

 

Video of Tiger Temple’s new temple construction site

 

Shortly after, the volunteers dispersed to get ready for their afternoon job duty. As I walked back to my room I felt rather dumbstruck and couldn’t stop thinking about how blasé the temple was at saying that building a new temple was a higher priority than the tigers.

What did you think of the video?

I asked another volunteer.

It was interesting.

What about the part about the building of a new temple being more important than the tigers?

Yeah, I thought that was fucked up too.

 

My day was only halfway over and my head was turned upside down.  I still was trying to keep an open mind and get my head wrapped around the whole situation. It was only my second day after all and it was a lot to digest in such a short period of time. Despite my 7 years of non-stop traveling, I still was from a different culture, with different norms whose societal constructs viewed things a bit differently. Maybe my gut emotions were getting the better of me and I was overreacting?