A petting zoo — with tigers? Truly, only in Thailand!
But few children would pass up the chance to pet, stroke and cuddle a real, live, furry tiger cub at a bona fide tiger petting zoo.
Or, as junior put it, “A baby tiger?! Count me in!!!!”
So we trotted off to Tiger Kingdom, 20km or so outside Chiang Mai, Thailand, to stroke tigers, cuddle tiger cubs and experience all things tiger in Thailand.
The tiger petting zoo is just round the corner, in fact, from the home of the elephant artists, elephants that paint pictures live on stage.
Tiger Kingdom is a curious place. Part restaurant. Part breeding programme.
Part, well, tiger petting zoo. A place to get up close and personal with tigers, where you can stroke tigers aged from tiger cubs of two months to young adults of two years.
It’s the sort of place you’d only really find in Thailand.
Tigers are incredible creatures. And tiger cubs, with their dense, heavy fur, almost as soft as a house-cat’s, and their low-pitched mewing, like a tenor kitten, are irresistible.
The tiger cubs Z met were only two months old. They bat their paws just like kittens.
But their slinking, long-bodied, low-slung motion reminds one that the bat will one day become a lethal blow.
Z was entranced. Nervous, too: even cute little tigers have serious teeth and claws. But once he got close he loved stroking their soft tiger fur.
And, yes, when you stroke a tiger cub, it purrs.
Now, one of the things I hope to do as we travel the world together is provide Z with experiences he will remember for the rest of his life. And petting a tiger cub should be one of our Thailand highlights.
As he tentatively stroked a snoozing cub’s soft fur, from ears to tail, as you would a house cat, I had that warm, fuzzy feeling every parent gets when children and baby animals combine.
Commingled with the hope that I could shield him from certain harsh realities.
Of which the suspicion that the wobbly-legged little creature you’ve been petting is only wobbly because it’s drugged up to its little eyeballs was one.
As we walked away out of the baby enclosure, on a cute furry high, and through the cages where the tiger cubs’ older relatives reside, that inner glow began to disappear.
You can stroke these grown-up tigers, too. Bathe them. Cuddle them. Pose for pictures reclining like a silent movie star on their sleek muscled backs.
While the tigers’ eyes glaze, heavy-lidded, pupils tiny dots, like so many smackheads under the arches.
Most of them live in narrow wire mesh and polished concrete cages. No stimulus but a table for them to sit on. Like this lioness:
“Mum,” says Z. “This is REALLY cruel. These animals don’t have nearly enough space to move about. They don’t even have the space to mark their territory. It’s like a battery farm for tigers.”
Now, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that if Siegfried, the professional animal tamer, can be mauled almost to death by a tiger he raised from a cub and trained himself, these critters are most likely in receipt of something rather stronger than stick discipline to stop them turning visitors into lunch.
In one enclosure, two tigers, not dosed up for tourist duty, were bathing in a concrete bath. They had, in fact, rather more space than most other creatures there.
Possibly as much as forty square metres between the pair of them.
Tigers are, of course, solitary animals. The natural hunting range of a wild tiger is counted in miles…
This pair of tigers started to fight. It didn’t, to be honest, feel like playing. It felt like two stressed males fighting for dominance over a hideously cramped space.
The atmosphere among the audience, most of them Brits, came close to bear-baiting.
Now, I’m not particularly sensitive to animal rights. There are many people in South-East Asia who live worse lives than these tigers and to apply the standards of the wealthy, sentimental, pet-loving West to Thailand, a country where hundreds of thousands of children work as prostitutes is, IMHO, wildly inappropriate.
And these tigers are clean. Well-fed. Glossy.
This is Thailand. Not Peshawar Zoo.
Still… It shocked me.
More than I expected. Even though I had a good idea the animals would be heavily doped before we went.
I guess it’s because, unlike cows, pigs and, more controversially, horses and dogs, tigers are not domesticated and used for food.
Unlike elephants, which have been used for labour and battle since long before Hannibal (and only retired as a beast of burden with the recent constraints on logging), tigers have never been working animals.
Tigers, even in Thailand, are creatures of the wild. Pure and simple. Hunters.
Tigers, honestly, need space.
Not petting. Not stroking. Not cuddles. Space.
So… What would you have done? Taken your child to stroke tigers? Which is, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime experience…
Or given it a wide berth?
Or am I taking it all much too seriously? And should I, perhaps, stick to wholesome
baby pandas in Chengdu?