Last summer, Beverly and I took a trip to Bangkok, setting no real itinerary. I think it might have been our second trip since moving here, and experienced world travelers we were not. But with a city as big and as lively as Bangkok, surely there would be no end of things to do, we figured.
We mostly figured right, but what we were not prepared for was Bangkok’s big-city shuck-and-jive. In Bangkok, we found, everything was negotiable, except the act of negotiation. We had to haggle for everything, or be taken for the long ride, sometimes quite literally. A walk through the night market became a scary exercise in having your wallet sized up by every vendor. A cab ride to the hotel, a ridiculous haggle over whether or not the cab driver was going to take to you a market first to get screwed by someone else. I found Bangkok sprawling, immense, soul crushing and ultimately – crap.
Literally, as the alley behind our hotel smelled of nothing else, negating our desire to try the amazing street food of Bangkok. We found some great places to eat, but honestly, after twelve hours in the city, we were ready to get the fuck out of town. So we did. We booked a tour to a few locations out of town – the floating markets, the Bridge Over the River Kwai, and, as mentioned in the previous write up, to our eternal shame, the Tiger Temple.
So, as I did a year ago, let’s talk about tigers.
No doubt by this point, you’ve read the news about the shutting down of Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno, aka, the “Tiger Temple”, a Buddhist temple doubling as a sanctuary for recovered tigers, a means of preservation. Millions of people have visited the temple, where for a moderate fee, you can take your picture with one of the massive cats, or even participate in the feeding of the cubs, stay in their cage and play and pet them – small cats the size of a dog that will soon grow into five-hundred pound killing machines. The temple has been controversial for much of its life, apparently, either for specific allegations or for the same arguments against zoos.
As we booked the tour, Beverly was doing some on-the-spot investigating, turning up some unsubstantiated reports of abuse and drugging of the tigers. ABC News visited in 2006 and found no evidence of wrong doing, interviewing both Thai employees and monks and Western volunteers. They published an article explaining their findings which Bev had found. We discussed if we really wanted to do this or not, but not finding anything to hang our hat on against the temple, and mollified by the explanation that the fees go towards the conservation efforts, we pulled the trigger.
I’d love to say that I came away from the Tiger Temple with misgivings and lingering doubts, but I didn’t. It was a thrill to place my hands on an animal as powerful as a full-grown male tiger, even as I ignored the unfocused look in its eyes. Maybe it wasn’t drugged. Maybe it was exhausted, I told myself, conserving energy in the hot Thai afternoon. We can tell ourselves anything.
A few months ago, my friend Michelle posted a few articles about cruelty of Thailand’s other famous animal attraction, elephant rides. The article was about an elephant that dropped dead while being worked in 100-degree heat. In Michelle, I find a kindred spirit – an activist, outspoken and unwilling – or sometimes unable – to remain silent towards injustice and injury. I take her perspective with intense sincerity, as I remind myself often that I am a stranger to this part of the world, and having a viewpoint offered from the same Catholic background of my adopted home is invaluable. Our conversations on the topic have often taken the form of the student at the feet of the master, as I willingly admit my ignorance of South-East Asia, its history, its values.
Oh sure, I’d be happy to say that I took her views on the Tiger Temple as canon and repented my visit. But I didn’t. I defended our visit. Maybe I wanted to hold on to something positive and say that the trip to Thailand wasn’t the worst fucking trip ever. Maybe I felt like I found something true when I laid my hand on a cat twice my size and saw the beauty of raw power and felt the respect we all must give to nature, and our responsibility towards it.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. All excuses. Same same, but broken.
The Thai government raided the temple and effectively shut it down. The big headline was the discovery of forty tiger cub carcasses found in a freezer, but the more heartbreaking discovery for me – and according to this Al Jazeera article, some of the temple’s volunteers – were the various body parts being prepared as talismans or the cured tiger skins, the truly damning evidence of the monks’ intentions, the illegal (and reprehensible) sale of endangered animal parts. The tigers were taken away – to where, I have no idea. The Thai government seized them, claiming that tigers are “national assets” and that the temple had been illegally profiteering off the tigers by its very existence. But, according to the above article, when one government official visited the temple four years prior, he “actually praised the tiger’s living conditions, telling the Bangkok Post: ‘Frankly speaking, their living conditions are better than those in state-owned zoos.'”
Thailand’s government isn’t without issue. There have been a number of uprisings and coups over the last decade, with the government currently being run by a military junta that in April announced it is opening “attitude camps” to “train” government critics within that nation. Maybe the curriculum at those camps will include the ethics of responsible stewardship of the planet’s natural resources and animal populations, but I doubt it. I have no doubt that free of any damning evidence the government was willing to turn a blind eye towards the goings-on at the temple as it did its part in bringing in the millions of tourists that visit Thailand every year. I cannot possibly speak to what changed internally to prompt the raids, but can only hope that someone with a conscience had learned too much.
Anything more is just vile speculation. I’ll refrain.
I deleted all the pictures of Beverly and I at the temple from social media and this blog. You can take a peek, I’ve removed my previous post as well. Reactionary? Perhaps. The picture of me feeding a tiger cub was one of the most “liked” pictures I’ve ever posted. And why not? It is – without context – an amazing picture. I’ve written already about the power I felt at being that close to a “wild” animal, playing what I thought was my part in the conservation of a beautiful species that other men have decided should be hunted without thought towards sustaining their numbers, only the me-me-me kill-fuck-kill-fuck blood lust of a poacher.
Conservation. Responsibility. These are pretty loud words. Presumptuous, pretentious words, even, as if any human has the power to force our mother Earth into adopting the forms that we prefer, to take the shape of things as we see them. But, in that noise there is such powerful truth, isn’t there? We alone1as far as we know, at least of our all our mother’s children have the ability to express our understanding of her workings, of the damage that we can do as the world’s apex predator. Doesn’t that resonate with most of us? With great power, yada yada yada?
I’m a writer. I was an IT professional2perhaps will be again. The Once and Future Sysadmin.. I’m not the activist I wish I were at times. I’m just a sorta-smart kid from Petaluma that spent way too many years playing the game I thought we all had to play3I can never thank Joshua Staples enough for providing those words. I could literally tear myself apart if I jumped up and tried to solve every problem that upsets me, that I think I have the energy to solve. I can’t do much here but write about what I think and what I feel.
Sometimes, though, it just needs to be said aloud. Written down. Something that will get people talking, even if by people, I mean the small intersection of the Bay, Portland and Singapore that will read these words.
So I deleted what I wrote before. I’ve taken down pictures. Not4solely out of shame, but primarily out of an unwillingness to share images that promote a business that illegally harvested animals. That betrayed a basic trust – not only to the general public, but also the people that had volunteered their time there. I spoke with a woman from California who was working with the tiger cubs when we were there. She believed in the mission, she had moved halfway around the world to spend time working with those beautiful creatures. Was she too fooled by this? I wish I could speak with her again, to ask her – without accusation or anger, because I literally bought into this – how she felt working there, now that we know.
Hindsight, isn’t it a bitch?
There’s been a lot of discussion – and by discussion, I also mean the Internet’s version of shouting from the rooftops, baying for the heads of any and all culpable – about the unfortunate death of Harambe, the gorilla that was shot to death after a young boy fell into his enclosure. I’m not about to begin to discuss the merits of that particular decision. As I just wrote, there’s enough noise and grandstanding and bullshit surrounding the whole ordeal. But the incident, along with the tiger attack in the San Francisco Zoo, ought to spur on a civilized5HAH discussion on the place of zoos and where to draw the line between conservation and confinement.
I love zoos, I think there is massive educational value in them. I have fond memories of the San Francisco Zoo, and in my adult life, the Portland and, of course, the San Diego Zoos. While the Internet offers so many ways for children to be exposed to species outside their home areas, there is something to seeing an animal in the flesh, as I found out at the Tiger Temple. There is power in familiarity, in knowledge that can only be gained in the moment, in contact.
I believe the answer is found somewhere in the discussion of what we’re willing to pay for that knowledge. Animal harvesting, black market sales of animal parts, these are things we can almost6if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this life, there is always someone who defend anything. universally agree on as having no positive value towards society or nature. But confinement, exhibition, where does that line fall? Certainly areas like the San Diego Safari Park seem like a step in the right direction, conversing not only flora and fauna, but the space needed to house them. But not every country has the excess of land that the United States does. There’s not much in the way of easy answers there, which means, I think, when we do find one, we need to cherish it all the more. In the interim, all I can do is write something poor like this and ask the people I know to think about it.
That’s all, just think about it. Talk about it if comes up. Look past the pain and the punishment and wonder what we can do better. Maybe dig a little deeper if you find yourself in a position to pay to see/touch/ride wild animals. If you find yourself in Thailand, don’t ride the elephants.
And if you find that you’ve made a mistake – and this is really meant for future me – don’t beat yourself up about it. Learn, and move on with the knowledge that you’ve paid dearly for information, that maybe some amazing animal has paid for your knowledge as well. Cherish that knowledge all the more because of that.
So I deleted everything. I still have the pictures of the trip on my hard drive, but I’m considering if I want to remove those too. I don’t think I will. The trip happened. I’m not ever going to pretend otherwise. All I can do is replace my glowing words with what I’ve learned since. And what I’ve learned is what I already knew – the world isn’t black and white, and there are no easy answers. What can be important and valuable to some can have a dark underside, a cost that we’re happy to ignore.