UPDATE: we are proud to share that our article warning people not to go to Tiger Temple has been read by well over 1.2 million people. In February 2015, Thailand’s government raided the facility and Tiger Temple was later forced to shut down and to hand over their 147 tigers to the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.
Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua — better known among travelers as “Tiger Temple” — is probably the most controversial temple in Southeast Asia. You’ve probably seen pictures of people posing next to a majestic tiger, bravely holding up a tiger’s tail and grinning proudly, or perhaps even shoving a baby bottle filled with formula down a tiger cub’s mouth. Obviously great shots for Facebook.
However, I’m here to tell you those photos come at a steep price. In August of 2013, I volunteered to work at Tiger Temple for 30 days. I left after 18. Here’s why.
1. Tiger cubs are taken from their mother and given to tourists at two weeks old.
Two weeks into this world, and a mother has her babies taken from her and handed over to the tourist hordes for bottle feeding and nonstop molestation. Tigers are solitary animals in the wild, but they stay with their mother until about the age of two. Two years, not two weeks.
2. Cubs are bottle-fed daily — over, and over, and over…
Keeping an animal well-fed is a good thing; having an animal fed by tourists all day long until formula is spewing out its mouth is not.
The temple makes the most money from everything cub related, so a long morning program with four afternoon feedings / tourist molestings is normal.
3. Tigers, tigers, tigers everywhere, but where are the rest?
When I volunteered at Tiger Temple, there were two 2-week-olds, three 6-week-olds, and three 16-week-olds. As I mentioned above, the temple needs babies, lots of them, because they are the cash cow of Tiger Temple. However, assuming a normal birth rate, the temple should have way more than 122 tigers under its care. Where did the rest of the tigers go? (Hint: Many neighboring countries believe tiger parts have magical medicinal powers.)
4. Tigers need exercise, but few actually get to at Tiger Temple.
I don’t know about you, but when I don’t exercise I tend to get fat, lazy, and upset. Now imagine a tiger whose basic existence depends on exercise.
Oddly enough, many critics of the temple point to pictures of tourists with sticks with bags on them playing with the tigers as “tiger abuse” — teasing. However, this “playing” is good for the tigers — it provides exercise and mental stimulation that they desperately need. The problem is only around 20 of the tigers actually get to exercise like this daily. The rest are stuck in a cage — sometimes six big cats in one cage.
5. There’s an inherent danger to being too close to unpredictable wild animals.
Every year like clockwork, a tiger mauls an unsuspecting tourist. Even if the tigers are chained down like prisoners to the ground, even if the tigers are raised by humans from birth (see: stripped from their mother), there will always exist the possibility of an animal lashing out.
And when a tiger lashes out, it’s not a house cat lashing out — it’s a 400-pound animal acting instinctively. It hurts. Ask this girl.
6. The tigers are on the equivalent of an American diet.
The animals are fed boiled chicken every day. Many are overweight and have underdeveloped muscles. Tigers need to eat red meat regularly to get the enzyme taurine and other essential vitamins for their muscle development and long-term health.
Tiger Temple claims they can’t give the tigers red meat because it’s “too expensive.” Too expensive? I guess the temple isn’t making much money…
7. The money tourists “donate” doesn’t go to tiger conservation, or anything remotely related to it.
Tiger Temple is a Tiger Business. And a shady one at that. The money tourists give goes first and foremost into building this big Vatican-like Buddhist temple out front. The “tourist donations” don’t help tigers in the wild, and if anything, falsely lead people into thinking they’re helping wild tiger conservation.
Likewise, how can the temple claim red meat is “too expensive” to give the tigers, while turning a phat profit and building a big-ass temple out front? Just because a place is run by a bunch of “monks” doesn’t make it holy (see: monk who runs with $32 million).
We vote with our tourism dollars, so next time you visit Thailand, instead of photo-opping with chained-up tigers, why not get up close and personal by volunteering with some rescued elephants? The tigers will thank you for it, and so will the elephants.