Images of a woman fondling a tiger’s testicles at a zoo in Chiang Mai, Thailand have sparked social media backlash and reaffirmed concerns among animal welfare groups about the mistreatment of big cats in captivity.
The tourist, who VICE News has chosen not to name, was widely criticised after posting a photo of herself clutching the cat’s testicles at Tiger Kingdom in Mae Rim last week.
“Pray in your heart and squeeze hard then you will be free from suffering” reads the caption.
The image was posted in an “animal lovers” Facebook group, according to the Bangkok Herald, prompting fierce backlash from locals who accused the woman of “humiliating” the tiger, and the zoo of animal abuse. Two staff members at Tiger Kingdom were allegedly punished over the incident, with the tiger keepers claiming in their own defence that they had told the woman the rules and risks before letting her into the tiger cage.
The tiger, for his part, appears completely unfazed in the images. But it is precisely this detail that has raised serious concerns among animal rights groups, who have fought for years to raise awareness around the liberal use of sedative drugs in big cat parks and zoos across Southeast Asia.
“Wild animals like tigers shun human contact, and if this animal hadn't been so drugged, it's very likely he would have attacked the tourist,” Nirali Shah, a senior campaigner at PETA Asia told VICE News over email. “Tigers and other big cats used for photo ops are regularly drugged because zoos cannot tame them. Captivity is a living hell for tigers like this one, and they live in constant stress, anxiety, and agitation every day.”
Shah explained that big cats used for photo opportunities in zoos, parks and other tourist institutions are often violently beaten into submission, drugged, mutilated and restrained in an effort to make them "safe" around the public.
A viral video of a heavily sedated lion being used as a photo prop at Thailand's Taman Safari park in 2016 drew brief worldwide attention to the issue. In the footage, a park worker repeatedly pushes a drugged lion cub’s head up while visitors drape their arms over it and say "cheese" for the camera.
“By posing with wild animals, visitors unknowingly condemn these animals to a lifetime of confinement and suffering,” Shah said, adding that “Thailand has a long way to go when it comes to animal welfare issues.”
In response to backlash from the photo of a woman holding a presumably drugged tiger’s testes, Pirom Cahntama, head of the zookeepers at Tiger Kingdom, insisted that such behaviour would not be tolerated at the zoo in the future.
“We do not allow tourists to grab the tigers' testicles but they are allowed to touch any part of the animal's body as long as our specialists are present,” he said. “From now on, we will make sure that no visitor will ever be able to touch this part of a tiger's body again.”
A spokesperson for AnimalsAsia suggested, however, that this disturbing story represents just one small part of a much bigger problem—and one that isn’t likely to be solved by merely preventing tourists from fondling an animal’s genitals.
“This is yet another example of the broader issue of the tragic exploitation of wildlife,” they said. “Many of the animals used for photo opportunities like these are stolen from the wild by traffickers and spend their entire lives as little more than a prop, never being able to express normal behaviour.
“Given the current pandemic stems from our mistreatment of wildlife, it is even more critical that we work to protect wild animals, not exploit them.”
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