Welcome to Tiger Kingdom
High-pitched horns wailed in the chaotic traffic on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, Thailand. The exhaust from rickety jalopies and revving dirtbikes was captive in the congestion. I covered my nose and mouth with my shirt, which was damp with perspiration from the prominent humidity, because I sat in a windowless tuktuk, a three-wheeled motorcycle/automobile crossbreed taxi. The driver, a tan, scrawny man wearing faded jeans, a tank-top, and worn leather sandals, turned around and said, “Sorry for traffic, my friend. Very close to Tiger Kingdom.”
After escaping the traffic, the driver opened up the throttle down a dusty road, which paralleled a murky-brown river. He slowed the tuktuk to round a corner and then I saw the wooden “Welcome to Tiger Kingdom” sign up ahead. My legs jittered and I could not sit still.
Upon arriving inside Tiger Kingdom, I paid the driver and exited the tuktuk. I walked up the stairs to find tiger themed pencils, mugs, hats, shirts, and stuffed animals on racks and in display cases surrounding the front desk. A sweet Thai woman behind the desk asked what tigers I desired to pet. My options included baby tigers, young adolescents, or full grown, eight-hundred-pound behemoths. I chose the latter and paid the equivalent of fifteen US dollars to lounge with the tigers for fifteen minutes. The woman pointed to a hallway in the stained, wooden building and told me I would discover many tigers.
Just as I made it down the hallway, I came upon a gargantuan enclosure with a pool, several trees, boulders, and two tigers inside. An employee trained a tiger with a thin bamboo pole. He pointed to various places and this menacing, regal creature stopped at the end of the pole, whereby it received a juicy piece of meat as a reward. The other tiger, lounging atop one of the boulders, yawned and revealed its intimidating fangs. It shook its head, chuffed, and resumed sunbathing. These tigers looked healthy, full of life, and the staff obviously cared about them. When researching this outing in Chiang Mai, people raved about the beauty of the facility and the fact that the tigers weren’t drugged or harmed in any way. After seeing these majestic creatures, I could not fathom drugging them for financial gain, which certain places near Bangkok do.
I continued along the dirt footpath and wandered around enclosures with various sized tigers inside. The large tigers lounged and people lay on them, scratching the furry bellies. The little cubs played around like kittens, clawing at balls of string and other toys in the enclosure. The adolescent tigers were the most active, horsing around and playfully biting. One man, who was inside the adolescent tiger cage, got frightened when two tigers got more rowdy than he was prepared to handle. But the staff member remained calm, gently approaching the beasts and separated them. I was inspired by the connection these people shared with the animals. They understood the harm those tigers could cause, and seemed grateful to be in their presence.
“You are petting tigers, my friend?” A male staff member asked me. My face was pressed against the cage. My fingers clutched the cage and I felt like a child at the zoo for the first time. I turned to the employee and nodded. “Come this way.” He opened a door, closed it, and then opened the second door leading into the enclosure. My heart raced. I was fresh flesh amid five eight-hundred-pound beasts. The employee, who wore tattered jeans and a Tiger Kingdom shirt, smiled at me as he pointed to one of the tigers. “This is Big Joe. Please, lie down,” he said, gesturing me to lie on the tiger.
The tiger’s warm fur was smooth. Big Joe turned his head around to look at me. His onyx eyes were piercing. In that moment, I fully appreciated the severity of the situation and was grateful not to be a shredded piece of meat between his teeth. I understood my place and recognized Big Joe as a greater, powerful being. Thais revere tigers because they embody courage and strength and while I acknowledged those traits, there was an innate gentleness present. Perhaps the Thai trainers transmitted compassion to the tigers via their Buddhism. By respecting and loving the animals, they in turn respect humans. I consider myself privileged to have entered into that reciprocal relationship between man and beast.
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