Hugs, Not Drugs at Chiang Mai’s Tiger Kingdom

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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. Quickly, you pounce, hands outstretched until you can feel 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 in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Back in April, 2012, my wife 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 P.E.T.A., I certainly don’t want to see animals abused for my entertainment.

When our tuk-tuk 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 (18-24 month old tigers).

A three-month old tiger tries to reach a bag of treats on the table at Tiger Kingdom.
A three-month old tiger tries to reach a bag of treats on the table at Tiger Kingdom.

After paying our money, we were escorted to the cage with the three-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 a little tranquilizer 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 foray with the smallest tigers, we moved onto the six-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 more 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.

A six-month old tiger relaxes in the corner of his enclosure.
A six-month old tiger relaxes in the corner of his enclosure.

Lastly, we came to the large tigers. At nearly two-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 “willing walking into a tiger’s cage” is not an included provision in my travel insurance.

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.

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

Have you been to Tiger Kingdom? If so, what are your thoughts on this issue?

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34 thoughts on “Hugs, Not Drugs at Chiang Mai’s Tiger Kingdom”

  1. We also went to Tiger Kingdom while in Thailand. On our first trip to the country we made the mistake of heading to Tiger Temple. It’s portrayed as a sanctuary for tigers that is run by monks, but it was clear at first sight that the tigers were drugged. We left immediately.

    Tiger Kingdom was the exact opposite. The tigers were extremely alert and lively. They seemed to be well-taken care of and we appreciated the fact that the facility broke down where the money was going.

    • Yeah, I’ve heard a few negative things about Tiger Temple, but haven’t been there myself. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Great post, I loved the Tiger Kingdom. I did the same package as well, and after visiting, I was convinced they weren’t on drugs. At one point all the visitors had to leave the large tiger cage because one had become aggressive. This particular tiger had gotten a hold of a plastic jug and would not let go of it, and would growl at anyone who came near. At one point he let out a full- blown roar. Insane! That tiger was definitely not sedated!

    • Wow! Nothing crazy liked that happened while I was there. I’m glad you enjoyed your time and came to the same conclusion. Thanks for the comment.

    • I agree with you . even when we visited this two weeks back they were fully awaken. Most amazing creatures ever I reached & touched ! Love that experience …..

  3. Personally I hope the tigers are on drugs. Great big bucket loads of calming drugs. Unless the great beastie is humming a happy tune and on its second packet of jaffa cakes I’m not getting in the cage with them.

    • Funny! I mostly agree…! There is always the possibility that some people will not follow the rules and do things to disturb the tigers…that said, it is fascinating, but yes, frightening. They are extraordinarily powerful, and move like lightning.

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  5. It’s good to hear the tiger’s aren’t drugged but they are still confined to cages when they should be allowed to roam around in the wild and be free! Visiting is still an ethical dilemma for us.

    • True, 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, they would be unlikely to survive. However, I can still see now that might create an ethical dilemma for some.

      Thanks for the comment.

  6. This is absolutely ridiculous!!! You made a whole article on your gut feeling! Okay tigers may sleep during the day but if they feel threatened they can attack you no problem. Even trainers who have worked with their tigers for years have been attacked and or killed by them before so do you really think that they would let children and tourist get in a cage and snuggle with them without any precautions? Hell no. Anyway I actually asked if they did (to get my point across to my friends) and they admitted to it! So don’t go around telling everybody lies biased on your uneducated guess okay?

    • I appreciate your interest in my post about Tiger Kingdom, and I’m sorry that you are upset that I am using my “gut feeling” about their treatment of tigers. If they did actually admit to drugging tigers, then that is very disturbing; however, without others to verify this, I still have to go with my “uneducated guess” as well as what others have said in these comments.

      Honestly, I don’t know what’s wrong with trusting my “gut feeling”. I mean, I have a gut feeling that my dog loves me, but it certainly can’t tell me that. I just have to look at the evidence I see and draw a conclusion from that. No different with the tigers at Tiger Kingdom.

  7. I’ve been in with the Tigers several times, I have seen them play, and I have seen them roar, in fact on one famous occasion the Tiger straight roared straight at me.

    I know people who work in the Tiger Kingdom, I know Directors of the Tiger Kingdom. These animals are hand reared from birth. Humans are not alien to them. That being said, you are not allowed to approach the animals head on, that can cause a playful reaction that may go one stage further.

    These animals are not drugged, they are fully fed and when fed they’re aggressive nature subsides, just as it does in the wild. Tigers don’t kill for fun, they are not foxes. They kill to eat. Be rest assured that the greatest single threat to us in the cage would be if the trainers forgot to feed them.

    The idea that tigers are lean mean killing machines is wrong, they kill to survive. The idea that they cannot be domesticated is wrong, there have been millions of examples of big cats being domesticated. The idea that committed activists and conservationists would volunteer then stand back and watch them being drugged is a fallacy in itself.

    However you cannot convince some people otherwise, they are that determined to hold on to their bigoted beliefs. So here’s what to do, go visit the Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai and see for yourself, then pass comment.

    • Thanks for the comment and the first-hand knowledge. While I never saw them being too aggressive, I did see several of them being playful. Ultimately, I came away with the same conclusions that you did.

  8. just to add some balance to your glowing report on Tiger Kingdom – I was one of the ‘unlucky’ ones who was bitten by one of the big 1 – 2 year old tigers you posed with. The two thigh bites were only a few inches away from my carotid artery. They resulted in 54 stitches, 10 days in hospital because of the serious infection that followed, and a month off work. I didn’t break any of the ‘rules’ of the visit, but I guess its a case of russian roulette as to who is going to get bitten next.
    At the hospital the doctor who stitched me up, said he had stitched up a teenage boy the month before with the same wounds from Tiger Kingdom, and since my accident in 2009 I have heard of at least 6 others who have been seriously injured at either Tiger Kingdom or Tiger Temple (as we live in Chiang Mai).
    So to anyone who reads this, my warning is – it is not as safe as it looks, and so its not worth the risk. More importantly why put money in the pockets of a business that stays open even while continuing to injure tourists.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ruth. You are the first person I’ve heard of who’s been injured there, but I admittedly haven’t looked into that too much. I think that it’s important that those considering a visit to Tiger Kingdom hear your story to better understand the risk. On the positive side, your story seems to lend credence to the tigers not being drugged.

  9. I’m glad you had a positive experience at Tiger Kingdom, as did I. I really appreciate what you’ve written here and your attitude towards the tigers. I’m trying to open more of a discussion about the place as people tend to sensationalise animal cruelty and refuse to even talk about tigers in captivity. I wrote about my feelings here: I’d love your feedback on the topic =)

  10. I visited in January 2013 and was a bit sceptical of going in and paying for something like this, until you realise that, while it’s not a tiger’s natural habitat, if left to roam freely in the hills of Thailand, they’re at grave risk of being poached, killed and sold for Chinese medicines and fur. The saddest thing about them being in confinement is the human threat to them in the wild. My personal experience was that the tigers (large and small) were really playful, well fed, with immaculate coats, no evidence of maltreatment like undernourishment or scabs and scars, and the staff there rear them from birth- you see the cubs follow their human around like playful pups. The staff were very knowledgable and answered any questions we had. I ended up practically spooning a large tiger, which was nerve racking to begin with but soon made me feel like these are just massive domestic cats now. Nothing wild about them and just as happy, as the Tiger Kingdom is all they’ve ever known. But, wow, were they amazing.

  11. We were there in 2011 and had a similar experience. The foreign volunteer talked us through a lot of different things and simply said “they’re cats – house cats sleep all day and so do these cats, they’re not drugged”. We were actually there on a cooler day where the young cats were actually very active.
    From what we could see they are well taken care of and have nice enclosures. And I’ve been to the tiger temple just outside of Bangkok – I certainly cannot say the same for that place.

  12. We went there and thought the tigers were very well looked after and had a good relationship with their keepers – I now see tigers in a completely different way. They were just like big pussy cats – quite gorgeous.

  13. I went to Tiger Kingdom back in 2009 and had a great time! I had heard stories about the Tiger Temple, but the tigers at the Kingdom looked very healthy. They were playful and running around. Sure, the big ones were lying around, but that’s what cats do. They sleep about 18 hours a day, just like your house cat would.

    Of course they are still big tigers, predators and ‘wild’ animals with instincts, that could harm you. Maybe it’s playful, maybe they’re annoyed… They surely can still attack you. Your cat might even do that every now and then, but even if these tigers do the same…there’s about a 200 kilo difference!

    If you want to go and visit tigers while in Thailand, I think Tiger Kingdom is a good place to go. The enclosures are clean, shaded, the tigers can run around. They are not chained up or drugged up (by the look of it).

    • Johan, Thanks for sharing the article. Unfortunately, they don’t really say anything about Tiger Kingdom. Instead, they state that “While documentation of abuse at Tiger Kingdom has not come to light, the training methods of tigers at other such facility have been revealed for their cruelty. An investigation into Tiger Temple, also in Thailand…” If there is documented abuse at Tiger Kingdom, I’d be interested to hear it, but to say that since it happens at Tiger Temple, it must also happen at Tiger Kingdom is just ridiculous. There are several comments in this thread that indicate that Tiger Kingdom is much better run and maintained than Tiger Temple, so you can’t compare the two like that.

      The article also talks about their breeding program and how the tigers can’t be released into the wild. While this is too bad, it really isn’t that different from any other breeding program run by any zoo around the world.

      While I certainly understand there are differing opinions on Tiger Kingdom in general, I’ve yet to hear any concrete issues that make me question the programs they run there (Tiger Temple is a very, very different story).

  14. My husband & I visited Tiger Kingdom when we were in Chiang Mai for our honeymoon. I have to admit, I was a little nervous that the animals were not going to be treated well but once we were there we were both impressed by the quality that we did see.

    For all those that claim that the tigers are drugged, have you ever spent a day with a house cat? I have a cat & she sleeps most of the day, it’s just how the animals are.

    Check our our blog post about our experience at Tiger Kingdom:

    • It’s certainly a controversial place, and I can certainly sympathize with people who don’t like the place. However, I can say without a doubt that the tigers are not drugged. Saw too much playing and even fighting while I was in the cages with the tigers to make that possible. The tigers were much more active here, while people were in the cages with them, than most tigers are at the zoo.

  15. We went to a Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai back in 2012… I was excited to go but also very nervous because I’m always skeptical about any place that houses wild animals. Even zoos. You just never know whether they take good care of the animals or not. That being said, we had a great experience (we only went in with the small baby Cubs). The Tigers all seemed very healthy and playful… The volunteers and trainers seemed to genuinely care about the Tigers and were very nice to them. In the enclosure we were in they didn’t even use sticks for redirection – they used palm leaves. Very gentle. Anyway, I have absolutely left certain attractions and zoos in the past with a bad feeling in my gut about how the animals were being treated – this was not the case at Tiger Kingdom. Obviously none of us can say with 100% certainty that they run the place perfectly but I didn’t see anything that would lead me to think that the Tigers are mistreated in anyway. It was an awesome experience!

  16. We visited the Tiger Kingdom in Phuket in 2014.
    Our “Gut Feeling” was exactly the same. Tigers seemed no more sedated than a lazy house cat. We left with a good feeling that if you had to keep tigers in captivity then this was not a bad way to do it. The animals certainly appeared happy and healthy. The trainers and staff seemed to truly care for these animals.

    I was never able to find a factual report to say otherwise about this place. The “Exposed” story posted earlier seemed to tell the History of Tiger Temple rather than Tiger Kingdom. Mostly just deluded bloggers expressing opinion as fact often without ever having been there.

    Please note I am expressing my opinions based on what I have seen. These opinions are still not facts.

    I have visited many zoos in first world countries and the care seemed no less here.

    Ideally we would all love to see these animals free in the wild but sadly the number of large wild predators in this world will always reduce as long as the dominant predator “us” continues it’s population growth.

    So have a read of their website. They don’t plan to release Tigers into the Wild (Where could you do that anyway?). They plan to obtain land and create retirement homes for them with borders to prevent them fighting. At the same time they may be able to keep viable gene pools going into the future whilst also letting people experience an encounter with these beautiful majestic animals.

    Just my Opinion

  17. I’m currently back and forth on this. I really want to see tigers, but I also want to do it ethically. So far from my research, this seems to be the better tiger sanctuary in Thailand.

    That’s just from my research though, looking at good and bad reviews. Thanks for posting this. Due to this post and the replies, I feel better about the animals not being drugged.


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