Danger sign around tigers

All photos courtesy of Michael Bush

How I Was Almost Eaten by Tigers in Thailand

| published Date January 16, 2016 |

By Michael Bush, Thursday Review writer

I always find myself making clarifying statements. I don’t do it because I’m misunderstood or fail to express myself in an intelligible manner. I do it because I want to make sure you people know where I’m coming from. Like, when I say that I’m more of a dog person than a cat person, you need to know that I haven’t owned a dog since the age of 18, after leaving home. I have since owned a cat that was with us for nine years. I loved that cat with all my heart, but even still, I consider myself a dog person. Further clarification: I don’t want pets right now. I have two wild children to take care of and clean up after, so there is no way in hell I would add more mouths to feed and butts to wipe.

So how does a person like me, who loves animals and yet, does not want to own any, get his cuddle fix? Well, you go to Thailand and hug a tiger. Duh. They didn’t have a wolf sanctuary, so I had to go cat and forgo canine cuddle.

The Tiger Kingdom in Phuket, Thailand is a place that puts people into three categories. The first group is people like me, excited to experience such majestic and gigantic beasts. The second category is people who believe the Tiger Kingdom to be a cruel and inhumane place, accusing the staff of drugging the tigers to keep them docile and inhibit them from eating the tourists, all while keeping them locked up in enclosures far too small. The third category is people that don’t care either way and hang out in the cafe, not willing to pay the price of admission to get close to the big cats.

Now to address the rumors of drugging, I’d like to point out something. Clarification: I am not a scientist and have no proof either way—but have you ever observed a house cat? They just lounge around and sleep a lot. In fact, I read somewhere that cats sleep 12 to 16 hours out of every 24 hour day. So, yeah, the tigers in this Kingdom are lazy and lethargic. That doesn’t mean they are all hopped up on goofballs and high as a kite. Plus, it’s pretty damn hot in Thailand, which makes even robust and manly men such as myself falter and retire for a mid-day nap. Clarification: I am not overly manly nor very robust, but I like to remember myself that way when considering past adventures.

That being said, maybe they do dope the tigers. Who’s to say? All I care is that they didn’t eat my kid or me. If tiger weed made that possible, then all I can say is, thank you, tiger weed.

Now, once you enter the Tiger Kingdom, you are told some very specific rules about hygiene and safety. You must wash your hands thoroughly before entering each enclosure and you must take off your shoes so you can wear the sandals provided. The same sandals that every other person that has come through that day has already worn. Talk about good hygienic standards. But I guess you sloshing around in some stranger’s foot juice won’t kill a tiger. You might get scabies or foot fungus, but that is not the Tiger Kingdom’s concern.

You are also instructed that under no circumstance should you poke your fingers into the cages. While these animals have all been born and bred in captivity by humans, they are trained not to eat you under only one or two scenarios. Even these tamer versions of wild predators will bite a chubby finger wagging at them from behind a fence and a cage. This seems like common sense to me, but you know, stupid is as stupid does. Tigers playing

They start you off with the youngest tigers first. You enter the enclosure and watch the obviously not drugged young tigers roll around and romp and bite each other while slapping each others’ faces, playing like little house cats, yet they are the size of a big dog and could probably still kill you in seconds. The strength I felt in just the little tigers was immense. These creatures are made to hunt and kill, and their physiology certainly tells that story in easy to read muscle and sinew. Despite all that lethal power, they were friendly and playful. Lucas was scared at first, but eventually gathered the courage to pet them. It was one of the coolest moments ever, coming from a kid scared of all house pets. Just now, while writing this and compiling the photos, he walks by and sees the photo of him petting the tiger and says, “Oh yeah! I remember that.” And I hope he always does.

author and son with tigers

author and son with tigers

The coolest part of the young tiger enclosure was that I got to lay down and hold one while he hugged me back. It was here that I really felt the primal power of this young tiger. His paws were already almost the same size as my face. I knew deep down that if this cat wanted to, it could pop out those claws and rake my life away. That’s probably akin to the feeling of bungee jumping, where you know the cord is going to pull you back up, but your instincts tell you that it’s all over so say goodbye. Luckily, the cuddle monster just hugged and didn’t kill me. But I still had the big tigers to see, and I might not be so lucky with them.

Michael with tiger around his neck

Lucas was not allowed in with the big tigers, which was totally fine with him. He had already let me know that he was NOT going in with the giant cats. I guess, whether they are tired or drugged, it doesn't matter. A human child is too tempting for the adult tigers. So, swimming in a disgusting concoction of tourist foot soup with my hygienic slippers on, I entered the second enclosure.

“Do not approach the tiger from the front. Do not look the tiger in the eyes. Do not touch the tiger past this point.” Michael with tiger

These are the instructions I received, and once again I knew that it was going to be OK but my instincts were telling me that I had already cuddled a baby tiger. Let’s just go home now. But I had paid my exorbitant admission fee, and I was determined to wring every ounce of experience out of this day. I strode forward and did as I was told; I approached from the rear, sat down, and put my hand on the tiger's haunch. It was thrilling, to say the least.
Tiger behind Michael

The problem, as you may have noticed in the photo, was that despite the explicit instruction to NOT approach from the front, another tiger was sitting right behind my designated predatory animal. So, while I approached my cat from behind, I was approaching the other one from the front. And don’t think for one second that I didn’t consider this the entire time. But all was going well. Someone else sat with this other tiger, and he paid me no mind. Until they got up and left, and I still sat there petting a tiger butt. The tiger behind me made a sudden movement and growled. I was going to die. I just knew it. My body filled with terror while my shorts almost filled with something else. The guy told me not to move, and they caught the growling tiger’s attention for a moment with some sort of magic or miracle from above. As soon as he was disinterested in devouring me, they told me to get up and move away. You don’t have to tell me twice! Luckily, my friends were taking pictures and captured the moment of fear on my face as I sat and waited to die. Michael looking on while tiger bathes

Despite my near death experience, there was still one enclosure to go; the big cats chillin’ in the water. I had to have this photo, too, so I knuckled down and buckled down, then approached that big scary cat from behind. It was a lot more aware than I had hoped. But no growling or sudden movements caused me to have a heart attack this time. Instead, I got to stroke this tiger’s back like he was a little tabby sitting in my lap. Amazing. Totally worth almost dying.

In retrospect, perhaps the tigers were all hallucinating on tiger acid. Maybe the one that considered killing me thought I was a big ham hock. Wouldn’t be the first time someone made that mistake, and probably not the last. Maybe the unbelievable animal bathing in the water was really thinking, “The water, man. It’s like…touching me. It has FINGERS!”

The truth is, I just don’t know. I do know that either way it was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done and I regret nothing. I would do it all over again. Clarification: I would not do it again, it’s a little expensive and, you know, been there done that. But if someone invented a time machine, I’d go relive it. How’s that? Anyway, as we left the enclosure to go back to the cafe where my wife waited with the kids, I caught one last glimpse of a big tiger. He sat by the fence staring out into another enclosure. I’d like to think he was waiting for somebody to walk by and offer him a finger snack. But it’s just as likely that he was having a conversation with a pink elephant and saying, “I need a Twinkie, bruh.”

Tiger looking out of the fencce

Related Thursday Review articles:

Modern Farming, Ancient Ghosts; Michael Bush;Thursday Review; January 2, 2016.

An Improbable Meeting (Or, Playing Six Degrees of Michael Bush); Michael Bush;Thursday Review; January 9, 2016.