Dover man gets up close and personal with tigers

Derek Miller, of Dover, with a lion at Tiger Kingdom in Thailand. (Submitted photo)

At some point in the course of our lives we all experience a “pinch yourself” moment. For me, one of those moments occurred in a place called Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Imagine being able to enter the cage of a real tiger. Nervously approaching it, its eyes staring at you with curiosity, you slowly walk behind it; the prey has become the predator. It was surreal, as I placed my hands on the beautiful creature — feeling its body rise and fall with each breath.

Stroking the animal’s fur, the soft hairs running through your fingers, you forget your fear.

While it may sound like a fairy tale, scenes like this happen every day at Tiger Kingdom.

Tiger Kingdom allows visitors the opportunity to get up close and personal with several Indochinese tigers of varying ages and sizes that have been raised by hand in captivity since birth.

My son and I went to visit Tiger Kingdom. We were very curious, but a little apprehensive. After all, not only would we be going into a cage with a group of large tigers, but we had also heard some disturbing tales.

Fortunately for us humans, none of those tales involved injuries or missing limbs. Instead, they concerned allegations of drugging and mistreatment of the very animals we had come to see. And, while I’m not a member of PETA, I certainly don’t want to see animals abused for my entertainment.

Strict rules govern visiting the tigers at Tiger Kingdom.

When our tour van arrived at Tiger Kingdom, we were greeted by the staff and asked which tigers we wanted to see. Having come this whole way, we opted for a package that included three different age groups: Smallest (3-month-old cubs), Small (6 months old), and Large (18- to 24-month-old tigers).

I suppose the first surge of fear came after going through the admission process, culminating with the signing of a waiver — releasing Tiger Kingdom in case of an accident. This is a standard operating procedure — which is no different if you were to bungee jump or to go on a zipline adventure through the jungle.

After paying our money, we were escorted to the cage with the 3-month-old tiger cubs. Before entering, we had to remove our shoes and wash our hands. After doing so, we were free to enter with one of the volunteer handlers.

This was the first good sign for me about Tiger Kingdom.

At two of the three cages we entered, we were accompanied by a foreign volunteer. It seems to me that if someone loves tigers enough to travel halfway around the world to volunteer at Tiger Kingdom, they aren’t going to put up with sedatives in the tiger’s food.

Once inside the cage, our guide helped us approach the tigers and taught us the rules: no touching the head or front paws. After a few minutes, we became more comfortable with the tigers, and our guide even allowed them to climb on us. As the half dozen tigers played about the cage, it was very obvious that their moods had not been altered.

After our visit with the smallest tigers, we moved onto the 6-month-old small tigers. When we approached this cage, my first thought was that the tigers certainly grew between three and six months because, while obviously not fully grown, these animals were much larger than the tigers we had just seen.

Entering this cage, the rules were even more strictly enforced then they had been in the previous cage, and the tigers were not allowed to play near the visitors. Even so, you could still see them playing in the corners of the cage, and they would actively walk around the area.

Derek Miller, with his son, also named Derek, visits with one of the larger tigers. l

One particular rule that stuck out in my mind was that you were not allowed to approach the animals head on. The purpose of the rule is that it could cause a playful reaction, which in turn could be ratcheted up to aggressive behavior.

Lastly, we came to the large tigers. At nearly 2 years old, these tigers had been around humans their whole lives, and they were used to being petted by strangers. They were, however, more calm than the others had been. At first, I thought that maybe this was due to drugs, but then I thought about the tigers I see when I visit zoos at home; what are they doing? Resting — all the time. That’s what tigers do in the middle of the day. So, should it really be any surprise to me that it was what I saw at Tiger Kingdom?

Even so, being in with such a large animal was a little bit nerve racking. Quite honestly, I was glad for the insurance they included in the price of my admission because I would imagine “willingly walking into a tiger’s cage” is not an included provision in my travel insurance.

Showing teeth.

That being said, we made it safely through our day, leaving the tigers after about an hour in the cages and with great pictures and memories.

My inquisitive mind got the best of me as I picked the brains of several facility trainers, handlers and volunteers pertaining to the calm demeanor of the tigers.

The general consensus of the success of Tiger Kingdom revolves around the fact that the tigers are hand reared from birth. Humans are not alien to them. The tigers are not drugged. They are fully fed and when fed their aggressive nature subsides, just as it does in the wild. Tigers don’t kill for fun. They kill to eat and survive. Be rest assured that the greatest single threat to us in the cage would be if the trainers forgot to feed them.

The cats each have a pool in which to play and there is plenty of natural light. I was impressed with the cleanliness of the facility and the proactive approach from the staff in the overall operation of the facility.

The tigers are simply magnificent, and they appeared to be perfectly content and bursting with health. As mentioned previously, they have been accustomed to human presence since birth and appear somewhat nonchalant about people coming and going even when being petted.

I can certainly understand the ethical dilemma that people may have with the potential of possible sedation (which I did not see any evidence of this) and being confined to cages when they should be allowed to roam in the wild and be free. Yes, it’s true that they are in cages. However, the cages aren’t any smaller than those in zoos, and these are tigers born in captivity. If they were placed in the wild, their percentage of survival is greatly reduced.

Tigers in the wild are at grave risk of being poached, killed and sold for Chinese medicines, fur and various other reasons.

While I can’t provide input about other places that allow you to experience tigers, I can say pretty confidently that Tiger Kingdom is a legitimate experience. If you have doubts, go and see for yourself.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Derek Miller lives in Dover with his wife Kathie and daughter Brittany.

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