Monday was TIGER DAY! We went to Tiger Kingdom, a facility 10 kilometers outside of Chiang Mai, to see and play with tigers for the afternoon. Playing with tigers was number one on the list of things I wanted to do here, so I was obnoxiously excited about the whole affair. I was also really happy to be going to this facility because it seems to be the better place to interact with Tigers in Thailand; the animals are treated very well and are trained well enough that they do not need to be sedated for human interaction, whereas the other major facility is known for its maltreatment and constant sedation of the tigers. When you buy your entry ticket, you choose which size tigers you want to interact with; I choose to interact with all of them — babies (1.5 months), small (4 months), medium (16 months), and big (a couple years). Of course this was more expensive, but it was SO worth it.
First stop was the one and a half month old baby tigers, Ploy, Pai Lin, Pech, and Nin. SO ADORABLE. The cuteness is ridiculous. They’re disproportionate, awkward, clumsy, and weak; their legs splay out to the sides and their feet slide out from under them as they walk, and they don’t get far before they just give up and collapse. They also have these pathetic little growls, not far off from little Simba in “The Lion King.” It was snack time while I was there, so one of the little guys I was holding started growling his little kitty-cry until one of the handlers procured a bottle for him. I asked if I could feed him and at first they said no, but 30 seconds later the bottle mysteriously made its way into my hand anyway. After snack time, they all got more playful, so it was fun to play with them more after getting to hold them.
Next up were the small tigers, Ka-noon, Wan-heang, and Dok-koong. At four months old, they were already the size of small labradors but more powerful. It was clear from their playing that they were already quite strong but very well-trained. When they got a little too rambunctious or nippy, the handler would just shake his bamboo stick in their direction and they would sit down, lower their ears, and put on their best Puss-In-Boots cute, sad faces.
Did I mention they’re unreasonably cute?
From there I went to play with the “medium” tigers, Leonaldo and Edward. These guys were 16 months old and already about 100 kilograms. Leo was in a playful mood, and by this point, “playful” is toeing the line of slightly dangerous because they are so powerful and have tapped into their feline hunting instincts, but again, they were very well-trained. The shake of a stick garnered the same reaction in these guys as it did in the little ones, so I always felt safe. Edward was totally chill the entire time, letting me pet him and take a few pictures, at least until Leo decided to interrupt. Leo was prowling around the area the whole time, looking for someone to play with, and he kept sneaking over and nipping at Edward to get him to come play. The most he succeeding in doing was getting him to relocate, at which point Leo gave up and collapsed next to him for a bit. Seizing the perfect photo-op, the handlers had me sit down between them to snap a pic. As I sat down, my skirt brushed against Leo…as it turns out, tigers are ticklish, and Leo’s response was to roll over right into my lap.
Now, what does one do about a 100+ kilo tiger sitting in their lap? Not a whole lot. The handler suggested, “I think you stand up, now.” Um, sure, let me just shove the tiger off of me first, no problem. Leo actually decided to reposition and rolled back off of me shortly thereafter, but if he’d chosen to stay put, I would have been hanging out in that cage for the duration.
After a bit more playing with the Leo and Edward, it was off to my last stop, the big cats: Sticky Rice and Meatball. Both of these guys weighed in around 150 kilos, so they were massive, but still had quite a bit of growing to do if they were going to catch up with their 230 kilo father in the next enclosure. While laying my head on them to take pictures, the handler made it a point to show us exactly how huge their claws and teeth were, just to remind us how AWESOME it was that we could be so close (ok, and maybe dangerous, but really, I was perfectly safe the whole time).
Unfortunately, this brought me to the end of my time to actually interact with the tigers. For the rest of the afternoon, I just wandered between the different enclosures, watching the different litters of younger cubs play with each other, chasing each other around their enclosures and through pools of water, sometimes wrestling over the best toys (usually chunks of wood). I could have spent hours watching them play, or better yet, playing with them, but the afternoon eventually did draw to a close.