Elsa eyeing a piece of chicken Julia Hubbel

Tiger handlers and dedicated staff: how a visit to Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai was such a revelation

Dear Reader: This is the second of three, perhaps four stories about recent visits to Tiger Kingdom sites in Thailand. Again if such facilities bother you, don't read this. My first story set the larger stage (https://www.walkaboutsaga.com/a-tiger-by-the-tail-is-quite-the-tale-indeed-kids-dont-try-this-at-home/) and provides the backdrop. Here I introduce you to the staff and a bit more about the facility in Chiang Mai.

Princess Elsa is nearly pure white. She arrived by air from Toronto to Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai where the handlers got to know her and her particular idiosyncrasies. Since she wasn't born here, that means a long period of watching, interacting and respecting her boundaries.

Unlike most of the other cats here, she prefers to have her head touched. If you work on her, it's with a brush. These big cats don't like tickling sensations and will swat at them, claws extended, so anything that dangles has has to be removed.

Things are slow right now at Tiger Kingdom here in Chiang Mai. Covid chased off a lot of people, and tourists are the lifeblood of such places. Half the staff were let go, according to one of the men I spoke with.

Those who accompanied me on my four-hour day at the facility ranged from four years of experience up to ten, and one like me came out of the military.  Here are some of them (all photos by the author):

Their long-term commitment to the tigers and their well-being were part of what struck me. I was given very careful instructions on how to approach each animal, which for the uninitated is essential. All animals down to the tiniest have unique personalities in ways that we are only just beginning to understand.

For those unfamiliar with Tiger Kingdom, I would invite you to read this:

About Us | Tiger Kingdom | Thailand
How did Tiger Kingdom start, what are we about, and what is our vision for the future?

Perhaps the part of this page I appreciate the most is the acknowledgement of the value of visitor criticism. While some of it may be uninformed, such feedback has led to enlargement of living areas and other quality-of-life issues. That's an enlightened approach which has, over time, led to many best practices and changes which I've seen made since I was here some seven years ago.

The men who took me around to their charges often had backgrounds in animal studies. They were highly protective of their animals, making sure that I understood what to do and not to do. In particular, they appreciated that I was willing to put in some sweat equity into treating these great animals with love and respect. That earned me some very special moments:

One big boy inspects my hands after I have rubbed his belly Julia Hubbel

Again, while I can appreciate the purists who argue that these facilities should be banned completely, I  disagree. If I may: animal tourism, some of it, at least, can potentially lead to much better understanding of the threat we all pose to the natural world. It can also lead to a much deeper appreciation for animals which we fear unreasonably.

To wit: some years ago I spent seven weeks in South Africa. One of my destinations was Dyers Island, where I did a shark cage dive off the coast of Gaansbai.

Gansbaai - Wikipedia

After the movie Jaws, not only were millions of people terrified of Great Whites, but killing them off completely seemed to be the only response to our untrammeled idiocy. Great Whites are extremely important keystone predators, and with so many other sharks, they are being hunted to extinction. I spent more than an hour submerged in frigid 40-degree waters watching some eighteen of these gorgeous creatures explore my cage.

I also watched more than one return repeatedly in response to my stroking their bodies. They didn't attack. Not once. Not even. We are so easily manipulated to feel fear about what we don't understand. My time in the water left me transformed. That, in fact, is the whole point. It is far less a spectacle so that you can "prove" to everyone how brave you are than it is an exploration of that fear, the release of the supersition, and ultimately the gaining of appreciation for this incredibly important animal's role in the oceans.

Are there rogues? Of course. Let's ask about rogue humans, shall we? I feel less fear from a shark than someone with a grudge and an AK-47. Just saying.

Back to Tiger Kingdom. Let's move away from the silliness of so many people who really do come here only for a photo. That raises money, and that money pays salaries and keeps the animals healthy.

However there's also this:

one of many educational signs in the park Julia Hubbel

Everywhere there are signs which educate the visitor on the animals, the breeds, the level of endangerment and more. You can, if you choose, walk out educated, donate to a good cause, and be far more conversant on the topic of these critically- endangered animals than most.

Or you can take your photo, grinning with Mr. Bang and show it off to your friends in blissful ignorance of the real opportunity you just had to better understand our shrinking natural world and our role in it.

I can understand the discomfort some will have with places like Tiger Kingdom. For my part they serve a purpose. Each time I've visited this kind of place I have left far better educated, much more engaged and in all ways more prepared to commit to doing what I can as both a writer and a human being to protect the shrinking resources which are so precious to us.

Tiger Kingdom now has three locations. If you come to Thailand I heartily suggest you take some time to explore here. You may, as I did, arrive with some prejudices. However the more time I spend here the more I value the role that such facilities play in educating us about what we are so swiftly losing.

Again: could we do better? I will say this again, as I did in my first article:

We could bloody well give the animals back their land and find ways to completely stop poaching.

We won't, at least not in my lifetime and not swiftly enough. Given that, I will take such experiences as the tradeoff that it is, and appreciate that I can even touch such an animal, much less invest in giving it a belly rub, a piece of chicken or a kind pat on the royal head.

But that's just me.

Princess Elsa tolerates a pat Julia Hubbel

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