18 September 2013

I'm Still Standing

Yeah she looks all cute and innocent now, but
soon she was to taste blood - human blood. 
After her bottle of milk, though -
she is a baby, afterall.
Ha!  Doug tried his damnest, but I have emerged from being mauled by tigers and almost drowned by elephants, and I’m still standing.  Oh yes, he’s going to have to try harder than that.  Perhaps he could try ninjas next year.  Mind you, he has pointed out that he still has another month to do me in, so I’m still on guard.

And yet he did meet with some measure of success, and the tradition of me getting mauled by wild animals while enjoying a birthday treat lives on.  So yes, I did get bitten by a tiger.  But on the arm and not the jugular, so really it barely counts.  
Tiger fang hole in my arm.  My assailant is
 sleeping off her attack at the top of the picture.
My assailant was only a little gel, but by golly even little tigers have bigger teeth than you might expect.  So now I have a fang-sized hole in my arm, which bled for a long time and has remained inflamed and sore for a while.  The wound wasn’t helped by being washed out in the quite grubby River Kwai when I was dumped into it by my elephant a few hours later, but I’m still alive so it’s all good.

The day started at 5am, when our driver Adun arrived to collect us.  As with all other drivers we’ve had in Bangkok, Adun ignored all speed limit signs and cheerfully blasted through the sound barrier for most of our two hour drive.  If there was a road rule that wasn’t horribly broken, it’s not one we know of.  So we made good time.  We picked up our guide Gung, and headed off to the bridge over the River Kwai. 

Bridge over the River Kwai.
It was lovely being there first thing in the morning, when there were only one or two other people about.  We walked across the Bridge and back, and read at the memorial about how many lives the Thai/Burma railway cost.  There is an ANZAC Day ceremony at Hellfire Pass each year, and although it takes a bit of getting to it might be a good thing to do.  A bit different from the big deal ceremonies held in Turkey and France.

After spending time at the Bridge, we headed off to the Tiger Temple.  On the way Adun showed us the road-side stall where he has breakfast each day, and we joined him.  Afterwards we wondered how sensible it was to turn up to the Tiger Temple smelling like barbequed pork, but it too late to worry about trifles like that.

A good back scratch soothes
the savage (baby) beast.
You start your visit by giving food to the monks who run the place.  You buy this food earlier at a 7-Eleven because the monks turn out to really like 7-Eleven dried noodles.  Then it’s off to see the moggies. 

We started off bottle feeding and playing with the smallest of the babies you’re allowed to handle.  They only had one little baby out, and she was seriously cute.  She was only two months old, but very feisty and certainly let you know how things were going to proceed.  She flat-out rejected a few people ahead of us who wanted cuddles, and did surprisingly loud growls and snarls and made it clear she wanted them to go away.  So the handlers told those people that the baby didn’t want them but they could look at her. 

But hello?  I have some experience handling little ratbags who think they rule the household.  So I sat with her, ignored her initial snarls telling me to sod off too, and instead gave her a solid back scratch and a big belly rub.  Works every time.  She threw herself on her back and invited a game that involved quite a lot of me getting my fingers chewed, although she was mostly gentle, and her getting lots of scratching all over.  Tigers can’t purr, but it wasn’t long before she was wriggling with pleasure.  Later we found out that tigers don’t like being touched gently because it’s like we feel when a fly lands on us, so you’ve got to be firm. 
Look at the size of those paws, and she's
only 2 months old.
Firm scratching is what the gang at home get, which they love, and it turns out to work on cats of all sizes. So that’s what the other visitors’ problem had been with her – they were just annoying her with their gentle patting. Tigers like it rough!
So then it was time to feed her. She wanted to sit on my lap facing me as I bottle-fed her, and there was a lot of kneading going on so my bosom got a bit of a work-out. You can see from the photo that her paws are almost as big as my hands – and don’t forget that she’s only two months old – so it was lucky she didn't flex her claws very much. 

After a good scratch it was time for a good feed.
Lucky those bosoms are real, or it would have
been Puncture City.

After feeding her we had the choice of having breakfast ourselves or more play with the baby. Was that even a choice?  Even if we hadn’t already had breakfast earlier with Adun, we were always going to choose to play with the tiger.  But boy oh boy, with a big fat belly full of milk this baby could fart for Thailand! Phew!!! The handlers clutched their noses and throats and quickly moved away to get some breakfast, leaving us to play alone, and we did have to hold our breath for a while. But after her feed and game she was ready for a snooze, so we moved on to our next charge.
With the second girl we started off face-
to-face, with her paw in my hand, but things got
very messy and pretty soon she wanted to
sit on my lap and spill milk all over me instead.

Our next gel was only slightly older – three months old - but a whole lot bigger.  Again, this girl wanted to sit on me as she was fed, and she was very sweet because she wanted to put her paw in my hand while she sucked on her bottle.  Again, after the meal came the games, but all my Ahhh-isn’t-she-a-little-angel delusions ended at this point.  This girl liked to play rough – real rough. 

 At around this age they apparently start to learn how to throw their weight around, and this girl was quickly learning how to be a Proper Tiger Wot Gets Her Way.

It was all good until the milk ran out.
You have to be bare foot in the temple, and my girl took quite an interest in my right big toe.  I quickly realised that there was no gentle chewing going on with this one, and I stood to lose my toe if she got a good grip on it.  So I tucked away my feet and she started on my hands.  She got a good lock on my watch and tried very hard to wrench it off my wrist, and it took a bit of extraction to get my hand free.  She wasn’t happy at not securing the watch, and took a chomp at my arm.  I wasn’t quick enough on that occasion, so she sunk a fang into my arm and hung on tight.  By golly that hurt, and I had to literally put my other hand around her snout to pull her jaws off me.

So then I had a canine hole in the top-side of my arm, and smaller wounds on the under-side where her lower teeth made entry.  It bled for some time and later became quite red and swollen, and I considered a tetanus shot when we got to the UK.  It was very sore to touch for a few days, but now it seems fine and hey I’m still here with my left arm intact (except with a fang-sized scar which Doug calls my Badge of Honour).

Then it was time to leave the Mad Mauler for a while, to get instruction on how to train the younger tigers to walk on leads.  It is important for them to learn to walk on leads and accept some control from the handlers before they get a whole lot bigger.

Will you walk?  No.
Will you walk?  No.
Will you walk?  No.
And guess who we got to train?  Yes, the Mad Mauler rejoined us for some shenanigans.   What a naughty girl she was!  Not all tigers grow up to be suitable to interact with the public, and I must say I’ve got my doubts about this girl.  But maybe they’re all naughty at that age – I know that with the smaller ratbags at my house they were all bitey and prone to jump on you and attack you when they were little, but they have all grown up to be nice natured pussycats.  So maybe the Mad Mauler will grow out of her chew-very-hard-on-the-visitors stage.

So anyway, when she had a leash put on her the Mad Mauler threw herself on the ground and refused to walk, just like any number of domestic cats who refuse to walk on a leash.  Coaxing and encouragement didn’t work, and in the end I was told to lift up her rear end by her tail and make her stand up.  So eventually she gave in, but with much bad grace that involved lots of baby roaring – which actually sounds cute at that age rather than intimidating - and we were off.

Once we got her on her feet
and moving, the Mad Mauler
got into the spirit of going for
a nice walk.
Once we got her going the walk was quite good fun, with our baby tiger wanting to be Alpha Baby Tiger, out in front.  The instructions are that when your tiger wants to walk, you walk.  When your tiger wants to run, you run.  And when your tiger wants to poop, you remember that cooperative training only goes so far.  You are meant to exert some control in not letting your little one stray too far from the path (where the deer and buffalo live), but the Mad Mauler showed no interest in her bovine neighbours – she likes only human blood.

After the walk we said goodbye to the little ones, and moved on to youngsters aged about a year old.  They’re still playful and feisty, but now big enough to inflict some serious damage so you can never turn your back on them.  They were all very good natured moggies, but giving them the tempting target of an untended back is just inviting the predator to re-emerge.  These ones we had to wash and feed, so we got pretty wet, but it was a lot of fun.  And just like the gang at home, when you feed them a big hunk of meat they like you to hold it for them while they give it a good chew with their back teeth.  Mind your fingers, though!

Freshly washed and time for a meal.  Just
make sure they don't mistake your fingers
for lunch.
These tigers then accompanied us to a play area, where you could choose to stay up on the dry ground or go down to their swimming pool.  Doug and I chose the water, and it was a good decision because tigers love water and it wasn’t long before they had all abandoned the sooky visitors who stayed on dry land and launched themselves into the pool.  Yep, got seriously drenched at that point.  We were handed toys at the end of long bamboo poles, and told that they love it when you tease them with the toys.

 Yeah, there’s an idea:  let’s tease a whole troupe of tigers who are bigger than Doug when they stand on their hind legs, and see what happens. 

Doug eventually learned that it's better to have
them flying through the air AWAY from you.
What happened was enormously good fun, with everyone shrieking and laughing and getting thoroughly wet, and tigers leaping everywhere and clearly having a good time as well.  But even in the midst of this mayhem, you still had to be mindful to never turn your back on any of them.  That wasn’t always easy, with tigers going everywhere, but the handlers were pretty switched on and kept track of all concerned.

So okay, then we were filthy, we were drenched, and we smelt like tiger food.  So it was off to meet the big boys, smelling oh-so-delicious.  Cypher is the second biggest tiger at the Tiger Temple, and at 250kg he is an impressive looking boy.  But he’s also a big teddy bear, very gentle and really sweet with the head handler – there was lots of head butting and choofing at each other.  We were allocated Cypher to walk down into a canyon with a big water hole at the bottom.  Every time Doug took his lead Cypher stopped to spray his territory, but I encouraged Doug to refrain from being too empathetic with his tiger.

Doug became very good at teasing the tigers.
My tiger is in the background, having a tug-of-
war with me over a captured toy.
We had some photos taken with Cypher reclining on us – he’s a big heavy boy when he’s leaning on you.  If you only saw this part of the day you might be inclined to believe the stories about the tigers being drugged, because he was so incredibly laid back about being handled so much.  But what you don’t see in the photos is that you are surrounded by about a dozen handlers and the head handler at this point, all standing in close attendance just in case Cypher decides to be not quite so laid back.
Walking Cypher down into the canyon.
I had just emerged somewhat scathed from my experience with the Mad Mauler, who at only three months old was able to inflict a solid bite.  And Cypher really is an enormous animal, so it was clear that if he decided to chomp on us there wouldn’t have been too much the handlers could do to stop him.  But he was a good boy, and after our photos he and the other bigger tigers were let loose into the swimming area in the bottom of the canyon.  We all had to stand in a cage – although it was pretty flimsy and wouldn’t have stopped a determined tiger for a second – so we were out of their way while they played.  I can tell you now that there is no prospect that Cypher or any other tiger was drugged – they leapt and ran about like idiots, dunking each other, wrestling, swimming, wildly jumping off rocks into the water and generally having a good time.

Cypher is one laid back pussycat.  Until he gets
challenged by an upstart.  No, Doug wasn't
the upstart.
Cypher came to sit at the feet of the head handler, and there was clearly a close connection and a lot of affection between them.  But suddenly an upstart youngster decided to come and challenge Cypher, and it was on.  It was amazing that the head keeper could tell from the look on the younger tiger’s face as he approached that he was planning on causing trouble, just like I can always tell when Caleb or Calypso is planning on being naughty by how intent their gaze becomes. 
Cypher giving his young rival a good smack.
The young upstart and Cypher both snarled and roared at each other, then stood on their back legs and exchanged blows, all within about 2 metres of us.  There were 17 visitors and we all stepped back as one – it was a totally involuntary reaction - while the head handler leapt towards them to sort it out.  In the face of the combined force of Cypher and the head handler the younger one backed down, but the handler told us that it wasn’t always possible for him to intervene.  A few months ago a female tiger died of her injuries after a big fight where the handler couldn’t intervene without the risk of being killed himself. 

Then time for a play in the water.
So things can become very serious very quickly, and you do have to remember that they are enormous carnivores who might give in to their natural instincts if the right circumstances present themselves.  But it’s not so bad, and the handlers bring out only the tigers they believe are fully comfortable with people – although you can’t stop them fighting among themselves if they feel like it.  You just have to remember to obey the rules about always walking behind your tiger’s shoulders – rather than putting your back in front of their faces – and being aware of where the other tigers are in relation to you and your tiger.

So this was officially The Best Play Day Ever, and I would love to do it again.  You can volunteer at the Tiger Temple for a month at a time, and I would also seriously consider doing that. 

All tuckered out
and time to be
walked home.
I do have questions about their unrestricted breeding program, because it does not involve wild release onto protected reserves.  I know they live a great deal longer in captivity, and there are plenty of tigers at the Temple that are judged unsuitable for human interaction so they get to just roam about loose in a special area.  Hence the occasional catastrophic fight between them, because they are not kept confined.  And captive breeding does keep the species viable, because so few are left in the wild.  And yet, I would like to see some type of wild release program, if it could be done with guaranteed protection from poachers.  But maybe that’s the problem – there is no guaranteed protection from poachers.  In any case, this is something I’d like better discussed in a serious way with visitors who have an interest in the species’ welfare and don’t just want to come and play.  Although coming to play has a great deal to recommend it.

Then it was off to the elephant camp a few kilometres away.  I’m afraid this is not something I would be prepared to recommend at all.  Apart from the fact that the activities are not as described on the website by a long shot, I really did not like the way the elephants were handled. 

Cat doesn't look so big
here, but it sure looked
like a long way down if
I toppled over her head,
which was a constant danger.
We had a sweet elephant called Cat, and rode her bareback to the river in order to give her a scrubbing.  Gung, our guide, said it was just like riding a horse bareback, but what kind of horses has she been riding?  That’s true only if your horse is three times as wide as the average horse.  So it was very difficult to stay balanced on Cat’s neck, and a very long way to the ground.

What I really objected to, though, was the use of sharp hooked goads to control and direct her.  You can talk at me until you’re blue in the face, but I do not accept that inflicting pain is an suitable training method.  There was a long-handled hooked goad, but also smaller hooks that fit over the handler’s fingers and which he inserted into her earholes to make her move in the direction he wanted.  Cat certainly responded promptly when she had a sharp hook put in her ear canal, and you can’t tell me that the skin inside an elephant’s ear is not as sensitive as any other critter’s. 

This was also a quite dangerous exercise because after Cat very kindly dumped us into the River Kwai so we could wash her, she then laid down so we could reach her back.  But the riverbed is steep and incredibly slippery, and the elephant really big, and as she laid down you had to really scramble to get out of her way or be crushed under her, under the water.  Riding her was an experience unlike any other I’d had – even more difficult than bareback camel riding - and she seemed to be a nice, placid girl.  But I would not do this again or recommend it to others simply because of the way she and her companions are handled.  Plenty of elephant facilities do not use hooked goads around the back of the ear or in the ear canal, and I would check about the training and control methods before I visited any other elephant camps.

You can see that the river bank is very steep and
muddy, and only a few steps away from us
Cat was in quite deep water that made getting
out of her way quite difficult.
But because the visit to the elephant camp was not as advertised it only lasted about an hour, so it was a small part of the day.  The Tiger Temple was seriously good, and being worked into the ground as a volunteer is now on my List of Things To Do.  Volunteers get two meals a day and eat whatever the monks eat, are provided with very basic bedding – BYO air mattress and mosquito netting seems to be a good idea – and get to work six days a week, with meditation breaks with the monks every day.  But what a great weight loss regime, plus you get to handle tigers of all sizes all the time. 

Back to the pool for one last shot of What
Happens when You Tease Tigers:  they
converge on you.  If you want a
hands-on, close encounter with these cats,
this is the place for you.  Just take it
seriously when you sign the indemnity forms.
I expect you also get to clean up your fair share of tiger poop as well, and with just over 100 tigers in residence that’s a lot of poop.  But you also get plenty of play and handling time.  When the Mad Mauler got me a good one the volunteers and handlers were nowhere in sight because they were too busy having breakfast – it’s first in first served so you have to get in quick or miss out.  So, as I said, a great weight loss regime if you prefer to play with the tigers instead.  One year, if we decide we have enough stock and don’t need to do a buying trip, I might substitute a volunteer month with the Tiger Temple instead.  Doug says he’ll stay home with our moggies, so I shall be looking for a companion tiger handler in due course.  Come on, what have you got to lose?  Other than your arm.

And one last look at the Mad Mauler,
all snuggled up and enjoying her bottle.
So anyway, after Day One of the trip I’m still standing.  I’m not sure what else Dougie can throw at me – I have survived the meercats on a previous trip, I have survived the tigers, I have survived the elephants.  I have even survived marauding giraffes on a previous trip, when one bit Doug on the bum instead of Doug’s intended target of me – that was bad giraffe training on Doug’s part, so sucked in.  But we have a cross-Channel ferry coming up, plus driving on the wrong side of the road in France, plus a long trip through remote Scottish highland territory, plus a trek along Hadrian’s Wall.  There are lots of opportunities coming up to do me in, he reckons.  But I say bring it, Dougie.





1 comment:

  1. Been reading through your last posts and I love them. Very entertaining!