Why you should NOT visit Thailand’s Tiger Temples

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(Last updated on: 04/05/2022)

Many tourists consider a visit to Thailand’s tiger temples on their travels. I mean, who wouldn’t want a super cute photo taken with a baby tiger? Or to take a full grown tiger for a walk? These make for the perfect Insta shots, right? Wrong. Oh so wrong.

Once upon a time I was a naive twenty-something year old who did exactly this. Heck, my Facebook profile picture was of me and a baby tiger for far longer than I care to admit. I feel terrible about it. But the simple fact was that I didn’t know any different. But now I do- and I am going to teach you what I know, so that you don’t experience the heart-wrenching feelings of guilt when you look back on your holiday photos that I do…. read on to find out why you should NOT visit Thailand’s tiger temples.

What are Thailand’s tiger temples?

Thailand’s tiger temples are essentially a type of zoo that allows visitors to interact with the animals. There are a small handful of tiger temples that go by various names throughout the country.

These wildlife attractions are generally home to a large number of tigers, who are kept in small cages. Visitors can enter the cages to have photos taken with the animals. Visitors are sometimes allowed to pet and cuddle the animals. Many tourists will feed the tigers, this may be in the form of meat on a stick or it may a baby bottle for young tigers.

Entrance fees to Thailand’s tiger temples are generally pretty high. If you have watched the Netflix series, Tiger King, you will understand the likelihood business model and inner workings of such attractions, which have attracted a lot of controversy.

You can learn a lot about the likely inner workings of Thailand’s tiger temples from this documentary.

As with any wildlife attraction, there is the potential to do good- research, conservation etc are some of the major benefits of keeping animals in captivity. However, the press surrounding Thailand’s tiger temples has not highlighted any positive impacts, quite the contrary- it has highlighted a number of shocking and outrageous practices that have angered tourists and wildlife enthusiasts around the world.

Why are Thailand’s tiger temples so bad?

There are many places in Thailand where you can see and interact with tigers. For many, this seems like a dream come true – getting up close and personal with these majestic creatures is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Many people love tigers, so getting to play with or feed them might seem like something incredible to tick off your bucket list. But at what cost?

There is a hidden dark side to these tiger temples and the other places you can visit these giant cats. It is something that everybody needs to be made aware of- and that’s what I am here to do!

You may have heard of the most famous of Thailand’s tiger temples -Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno. This was the tiger temple that I visited once upon a time, along with many other tourists who had no idea what the impact of their visit was on these unfortunate animals.

Thailand's tiger temples
The tigers at Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno were supposedly calm because they lived with monks.

Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno was a Theravada Buddhist temple located in the Sai Yok district of western Thailand close to other popular tourist sites in Kanchaburi. In 1994 it was founded as a forest temple, a sanctuary for many wild animals including tigers. As it became commercialised it started to charge an admission fee.

By May 2016 the famous tiger temple was home to over 135 tigers. It was an extremely popular tourist attraction and many tour operators offered day trips and overnight excursions here from nearby Bangkok. It was supposedly run by monks, which was the reason that the tigers were so calm, meaning that tourists could safely interact with them. In hindsight, I am astonished that I was so naive to have believed this!

Just a couple of years after my visit, the Thailand Wildlife Conservation Office found the frozen bodies of at least 40 tiger cubs on the premises. Some had been dead for more than 5 years. 20 more cubs were found in jars of formaldehyde. Two adult tiger pelts were identified, along with the body of a bear and around 1,500 tiger skin amulets, plus other trinkets apparently made of tiger teeth.

They also identified a number of examples of malpractice here, including mistreatment of the animals and alleged drugging. As a result, the temple was closed to the public. There was huge media coverage and the reputation of Thailand’s wildlife tourism industry was forever tainted. Today it is a rundown site with a lion, some deer and wild boar roaming around.

Learn more about what happened at Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno in this BBC discussion panel.

There are other tiger temples in Thailand. Some other popular ones include Tiger Kingdom Chiang Mai, Tiger Kingdom Phuket and the Sriracha Tiger Zoo. They are similar in many ways to the famous Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno; all of these places all you to have close encounters with giant cats, and there are many reasons why you simply shouldn’t do this, as I outline below.

The tigers are subject to abuse 

In order to make it safe for humans to interact with these once-wild animals – who are predators by their very nature – something has got to give. And it seems in many cases that is the treatment of the tigers at Thailand’s tiger temples.

These majestic giant cats are vicious with giant teeth, and they shouldn’t be used to human interaction. In the wild, tigers are fighters. They reach up to 3.3 metres in length and can weigh up to 670 pounds – in other words, they’re huge. They are apex predators who can live for around 25 years in the wild; yet here they are, placidly sitting for selfies with tourists from across the globe desperate to get a cool shot for their Instagram page or family photo album.

To subdue the tigers and stop them from being violent, the handlers who work at these so-called sanctuaries are abusive towards the animals. They are forced to sit in hot sunshine for hours, and often hit with wooden sticks or clubs when not obeying instructions.

Thailand's tiger temples
Tigers allowing tourists to take selfies with them is not natural behaviour.

Another way the staff control the tigers is by squirting tiger urine into their faces from a plastic bottle or spray container. This is seen as an act of extreme aggression amongst tigers, especially in the wild, and they do not react well to this.

This is an example of negative stimulus. By punishing the animals when they do something the handlers perceive as ‘wrong’, they are less likely to do it again in the future. Therefore, they will ‘behave well’ for tourist visitors.

The tigers are in poor health

Leading on from the abuse that the animals at Thailand’s tiger temples suffer from, they are in poor health.

Mentally these tigers are sad and subdued, and many have behavioural issues. Tigers can often be seen pacing or chewing their paws, both classic signs of anxiety in giant cats. It is clear that these tigers are stressed, living in captivity and being treated the way they are.

Tigers are fed for entertainment.

Their physical health is less than great, too. Due to their small enclosures and of course, the beatings they often receive, a lot of these tigers suffer from various physical health conditions. These include skeletal deformities, due to being cramped in spaces too small for their needs, as well as issues with their skin and fur. The latter issues here are likely to be caused by malnutrition and time spent in direct sunlight.

All in all, Thailand’s tiger temples do not take care of their animals. This leaves them open to all manner of health problems, and it isn’t safe for them to be where they are.

Mothers and cubs are separated too soon

Of course, cubs bring the cute factor. As such, Thailand’s tiger temples profit the most from anything related to tiger cubs.

As a result, female tigers are often made to breed in quick succession. This is unnatural in the first place, and their cubs are taken way too soon. In the wild, cubs stay with their mother for around two years. At these temples are other tiger enclosures across Thailand, cubs are separated from their mothers at less than two weeks old.

Thailand's tiger temples
I am saddened and embarrassed to admit that this was my Facebook profile picture.

These unfortunate tiger cubs are raised by hand, given formula milk that isn’t right for them, and left to wonder where their mother has gone. There are things that only a mother tiger can provide and teach her cubs. They are deprived of this opportunity. She, the mother, is then forced to have another litter and the process starts all over again.

The cubs are the star of the show for most temple visitors. Because of this, they are constantly handled, grabbed and touched against their will. The staff overfeed them, too, so that there are multiple feeding shows per day for guests to enjoy.

Using these baby tigers for entertainment without even letting them get a good start in life is a particularly cruel way in which Thailand’s tiger temples mistreat their animals.

Thailand’s tiger temples are part of the illegal wildlife market 

Things are illegal for a reason and if you are an animal lover, you will be familiar with the horrifying nature of the illegal wildlife market around the world. Animals are bought and sold, mistreated and killed on a daily basis. And Thailand’s tiger temples are a huge part of it.

When animals at these temples are past their prime, are too injured to perform or are born deformed, they are sold. They are taken in the middle of the night by the keepers they trust, and led to a canvas to be tranquillised. From here the tigers are transported to farms, particularly a tiger farm in Laos, where they are killed.

Their tragic life meets an even more tragic end as they are not able to simply live out their final days in peace. Instead, these tigers are butchered. Their fur is sold, their body parts appear on the black market, their bodily fluids go into the production of fake traditional medicines. 

Tigers are kept in small cages and enclosures.

The illegal wildlife market is a terrifying concept. And it is made worse by the knowledge that these beautiful majestic cats are falling victim to it. By visiting Thailand’s tiger temples and paying entry to have your photo taken with a subdued tiger, you are directly funding an industry that does not have animal welfare at its heart, far from it.

They make no effort to aid conservation 

Tigers are endangered. This tragic fact is inescapable, and there are many charities and programs that focus on tiger conservation as well as public education about tigers and other large cats.

Thailand’s tiger temples make no effort to engage in either of these, simply profiting from their treatment and sales of the tigers. While tigers are bred at these temples, they often don’t live long enough to be recorded. This means they don’t make an impact in terms of their conservation status. 

Thailand's tiger temples
This is not natural behaviour for a tiger.

To find out more about the status of tigers around the world, adopt a tiger or donate to aid conservation efforts, visit the WWF website. There are only around 3,900 tigers left, and the species is under pressure due to poachers and loss of habitat. Thailand’s tiger temples do not help matters, in that they present a false narrative that tigers are plentiful and willing to be used as entertainment for the tourist masses that visit these areas hoping to get up close and personal with a giant cat.

What can you do about Thailand’s tiger temples?

First of all, do not visit Thailand’s tiger temples. The tigers there are, as you can see, treated poorly. They are used for human entertainment and discarded without a second thought when they no longer fulfil a purpose. They are beaten and abused, left hurting and confused about why they are treated in such a manner. Cubs are ripped from their mothers, and mothers are forced to breed.

Thailand’s tiger temples make profit. But they don’t give back to their animals they use to make this money, and they contribute to the horrors of the illegal wildlife market. Knowing all of this is enough to put anyone (especially self-proclaimed animal lovers) off visiting one of Thailand’s tiger temples.

Make it known why you are against these temples, too. Have open conversations with people in your life as well as other tourists if it is appropriate to do so. It is understandable that people want their once in a lifetime chance to cuddle a tiger cub, but when you know the cost of this it is bound to make you think twice.

Why you should not visit Thailand’s tiger temples

All in all, it is clear that nobody should be visiting Thailand’s tiger temples while they operate in this way. But that doesn’t mean that things can’t change. Just in the way that many of Thailand’s elephant parks have now become esteemed elephant sanctuaries, Thailand’s tiger temples could also re-evaluate their practices and adopt new, more sustainable approaches. But will they do this? Only time will tell…

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