I could probably find statistics about how driving a child to the store or letting him ride his bike down the block is more dangerous than what I did, but I still feel defensive about bringing my sons into cages with tigers.
Still, it was the thrill of a lifetime. The hot, humid air of Thailand in August enveloped us as the guide opened the gate to the tiger’s enclosure. The massive, “medium-sized” tiger rested in the heat, head down, as we tentatively approached. With my heart pounding, I slowly reached out and petted its soft, luxurious fur. The guide gave it a hearty pat, smiling and relaxed, encouraging us not to be too timid around it. The tiger lifted its head, looked around. It tilted its head skyward in a big yawn, its teeth rising up, large perfect gravestones.
I touched the tiger’s paw hesitantly, and the guide again stepped in, lifting its paw in the air and shaking it carelessly. I finally lifted a heavy leg into the air. I squeezed its paw and a gigantic claw sprung out, just like they do with little housecats back home. That answered my question of whether its claws had been clipped.
The one warning we had been given was not to touch the tiger’s head. Swing its tail, pat its belly, lay our heads on its body: all perfectly fine. My husband, forgetting, reached a hand toward its head in his amazement. “No,” the guide was quick to remind him.
My son David, age 12 at the time, took his time approaching the tiger. He petted it and marveled at its strength and beauty. I was glad at that moment that we hadn’t entered the “large” tiger’s den.
The tiger spent most of the rest of the time we were with it tearing apart a coconut. My younger son, age 11, had not been allowed in with a tiger of this size. We all went in with the baby tigers with him. While the adult tiger had made my heart pound, the babies made it melt. These gigantic kittens played and cuddled with us.
When we returned from our trip, we shared photos, and I was surprised by the condemnation I received from other parents. I don’t know why it surprised me, other than we had observed the enclosures for a long time before we went in, and it felt safe at the time. I tend to be on the overprotective side in general, and I certainly have flung my share of judgment around when I’ve heard stories of kids climbing Everest or sailing alone across the Pacific, but somehow I decided to do this.
The postscript to this story is the part that is perhaps most unsettling. When we were safely at a restaurant that evening, the other mother on our tour and I shared our thoughts about the experience. While she was in the enclosure with her son and the tiger, she said she questioned the guide who held a little branch nearby. “I bet you have had a lot of training,” she said. He shrugged, replying: “I’m a waiter.”
(I’m curious to hear your thoughts about whether I was an irresponsible parent to my children to do this. I’ll try not to get too defensive.)
Update: Some more photos of us petting tigers in Thailand
This is part of a series, Scene from a Memoir.