I was walking behind my father on a narrow ledge when a movement behind my right shoulder caught my eye. I turned sharply and regretted it as my eyes met a pair of predatory pupils. I froze. Sudden or nervous jerky movement, I remembered reading, often triggers the ‘if it twitches like a hot prairie-dog, it must be one’ response in bears in Yellowstone.
But I wasn’t in Yellowstone. No not even in the same continent. I was many latitudes away in Northern Thailand, and the eyes staring into mine were of a large male Indochinese tiger, less than 10 feet away. But I must have only been a temporary distraction and I couldn’t hold its interest for long. The tiger slowly turned away from me and focused straight ahead. I followed gaze and saw it focus on my father as he, oblivious to the silent drama behind his back, walked on ahead. The tiger must have been following my father for a while for its whole body was poised in a straight line pointing straight at my father. And the tiger wasn’t approaching casually, but with purpose, its body streamlined and taut, as it slowly, with measured muscle, brought down a large front paw, heavy with intent, as it reduced the distance between itself and my father. As it crouched into a low pre-leap stance, my mind raced through a blur of questions. Was this a part of the intended script? Is the tiger just looking for a game of tag? Or has something in that moment triggered a deep primal urge in a once wild beast to express its fierce forest spirit? Should I do something to stop the tiger? And how…?
My questions did not get the time to bake their answers. In a flash, Lek, one of the trainers stepped between the tiger and my father and waved a baton in front of the great beast’s nose and broke the spell… for both of us.
This was Tiger Kingdom. A fantasy tourist outpost that had sprouted on the rim of the city of Chiang Mai. For a sizeable sum, visitors could cuddle cubs, run around with slightly older adolescent felines or if one dared, enter the cage of a full grown adult and go cheek to cheek for a photo op.
After chasing some of the cubs around their enclosure, my father and I decided to brave the perils of entering a tiger’s lair. My mother, and my wife who was carrying our son in her womb at the time, chose to watch from the sidelines. This wasn’t the untamed wilderness of Thap Lan National Park. This was a controlled environment where tigers had been hand-reared and tamed. They had names and thousands of visitors had touched and played with them. There were pictures all around us, testifying that it was all safe and easy, like a thrilling fairground if you will. So what could possibly go wrong?
Nothing at all, insisted the lady at the reception, and then with an air of practiced nonchalance, pushed a legal document for us to sign, releasing the management from any liability in case one got mauled, was dismembered or worse… ‘just a minor formality’, she assured us.
Then along came a tiger trainer and a staff photographer, followed by the rules. Don’t approach the tigers from the front. Don’t touch the front paws. Don’t put your fingers in the animal’s mouth. Don’t touch the tiger’s head. And don’t pull a stupid stunt that irritates the tiger. When you touch the tiger’s back, and mind you, only the back, be firm and steady with your touch. As long as we followed these rules, we should be fine. As we signed our lives away, I wondered if anything had ever gone wrong with the tigers…
The trainer and the photographer exchanged a few words in Thai, and chuckled, like they were ruminating over an old private joke. Leaving my question unanswered, the pair pried a wire mesh door open and then ushered us into the kingdom of the tiger. Trepidation was swept away by a wave of excitement as a large drowsy tiger rolled on its side, mere inches away from our feet. The trainer went around and sat near the tiger’s head and motioned for us to take our positions next to its rump. My father loves animals, and he was like a kid on an Avengers movie set, running from one striped superstar to another. And it was while traversing the length of the enclosure from one tiger to another lounging on a wooden platform that he caught the attention of a third tiger that started mock-stalking him.
It is difficult to say what would have happened if the trainer hadn’t intervened. However, once he did, the tiger snarled, recoiled, and then its demeanour changed abruptly, and like a purring hose cat, it rubbed itself against a tree and then loped away without throwing a second glance our way.
A quick search on the phone while returning from the centre threw up a few unnerving horror stories. Ruth Corlett for instance, wasn’t so lucky. Ruth and her husband Stuart, aid workers from New Zealand had been posing for pictures with a tiger at the center when the trainer asked her to get up. As soon as she did, the tiger spun back and buried its fangs in her thigh. More than 50 stitches later, Ruth knows she is incredibly lucky to be alive. Reports say that at the time of the accident, there were no first aid facilities available at the centre and nor did the trainers and management seem equipped to handle or even prevent such an attack. Apparently, the trainer’s only solution in this situation was to strike the tiger on the muzzle in the hope that it would release its victim and then escape.
After getting out of the cage, I had asked the trainer why the tiger had begun its stalk and if such behaviour was normal. The trainer said that usually they don’t allow children (or even small adults) into the cage with large tigers because their size and especially an unsteady gait might suggest weakness. And in the wild, tigers are programmed to look for weakness in their prey because that is their evolutionary role – to weed out the sick and the weak from its prey base. This makes the hunt easy for the hunter and keeps the prey population healthy. Perhaps my father, who is pushing 80 now, has a gait which though normal to the human eye, has a subtle unsteadiness that the tiger instincts picked up and flicked its prey-drive switch. And what would the trainer have done if the batonwaving wouldn’t have deterred the beast? Lek claimed that they have been trained in a form of ‘tiger-jiujitsu’, and those joint-locking techniques apparently are really effective against stubborn tigers. I nodded skeptically or though I’m a great believer in the power of the martial, I just can’t imagine the 50 something kilogram Lek going toe-to-toe with a 200 kg tiger with fangs as thick as his wrist.
Attacks by tame and trained lions and tigers in safari parks are not uncommon. From South Africa to Australia and the Far East, these show windows of lethal exotica are strewn with tales of holidays gone terribly wrong. Bruises, wounds, lost digits, limbs and even lives are very real, though rare possibilities at such facilities where powerful beasts with irrepressible primal instincts interact with people unused to the ways of the wild.
The question is, would my father and I have entered the tiger’s cage if we’d known what had happened to Ruth in just such a cage? Would we, and should we, forego the privileged opportunity of interacting with a lion or a tiger or a grizzly bear or a bull elephant just because once in a rare while, some of these animals might break rank and take a chunk out of a visitor or even a trainer?
Well, statistically speaking, the chances of you or me getting attacked by a safari animal are fewer than having an accident on a fairground ride or even while crossing the road. So, no I don’t think I would have changed my mind about entering the tiger’s cage, but knowing what I know now, I would try and discourage my father from undertaking more such adventures, unless of course he starts working on his walk.
Tiger safaris of the sort in Thailand and lion safaris like the ones in Zimbabwe and South Africa claim that they provide a safe haven for endangered animals that are fighting a losing battle against poachers and habitat loss. They also claim that such tourist interactions generate awareness for the plight of the big cats and aid conservation goals. Some safari parks even claim that they intend to reintroduce these big cats back in the wild.
On the other hand, their detractors, besides clamouring about the obvious dangers of handling dangerous animals, accuse these parks of being nothing more than tourist honey-pots that make money while they keep the animals drugged, damaged and confined. Such accusations have also been leveled against zoos by animal rights organizations like PETA.
So what is a conscientious wildlife enthusiast to do? By running the gauntlet of fangs and claws in his or her desire to get up close and personal with a magnificent tiger or lion, is one harming or helping the cause of the individual animal and species at large?
The answer is a lot more complicated than a simple act of jumping over to either side of a fence. It will take me another week to tell you what I and the world make of it. Until then, steady those steps for you never know who’s watching...