Tiger Temple seizure: The suffering of captive big cats

IFAW has participated in numbers of captive big cat rescues in the last few years. Titan, pictured here, was rescued from a closed sanctuary in San Antonio, Texas and moved to Pittsboro, North Carolina in 2010.Thailand’s Tiger Temple has long been controversial.

The facility has profited from allowing direct contact between people, including countless tourists, and tigers. Officials there have been accused of allegedly dealing in international wildlife trade. As a result, the facility’s operations have come under scrutiny from both Thai officials and international animal advocates.

Following years of legal battles and ongoing resistance from the Temple, Thai officials are now seizing these tigers. This move has received international praise—and rightly so, as it is an acknowledgement of the myriad problems at the Tiger Temple.

But it’s important to remember that this is not the end of the story.

The conditions in which these animals will live out their lives are uncertain, and there are other direct-contact captive tiger displays in Thailand—and throughout the world—that will continue to draw visitors.   

There are many reasons to be concerned when big cats are held in captivity. We know that tigers usually have a large home range in the wild and, when held in captivity, require expert veterinary care, sizeable enclosures, costly diets, substantial stimulation, and appropriate infrastructure to keep animals and people safely separated. Cub petting and close interactions with people are completely unnatural and place stress on these animals, and they send a message to the public that interacting with wild animals is safe. 

Unfortunately, Thailand is not the only place that captive tigers are being exploited (consider, for example, China’s tiger farming and Mexico’s famous pseudo-sanctuary. In fact, the US has its own captive big cats crisis. Thousands of tigers and other large felids are held in back yards, roadside attractions, and other unqualified facilities at which their dietary, medical, and intellectual needs go largely unmet.

READ: Resist the temptation: there is no need whatsoever to play with big cat cubs

Cub handling exhibits—often touted as being oriented toward “conservation” or “education”—draw unsuspecting customers to handle, take photos with, feed, or otherwise interact with juvenile big cats. What unscrupulous exhibitors hide is the mistreatment and incessant breeding required to satisfy this demand for infant animals. When these animals grow older and more dangerous, where do they go?

News outlets have reported that forty dead tiger cubs were discovered in a freezer at the Tiger Temple—a shocking figure, but one that pales in comparison to the 58 frozen cubs that were discovered among 90 dead tigers at a California captive breeding facility several years ago.

Tiger Temple has received criticism in part because it allegedly cannot account for all of the animals that have been bred there; for many of the big cats living in makeshift enclosures and other dangerous situations in the US, there is no requirement that they be tracked. We cannot excuse Tiger Temple’s practices simply because we have similar problems in the US; rather, this is an opportunity to examine how we can improve the welfare and conservation of tigers here at home while supporting protections abroad.  

Fortunately, the US Congress (both House and Senate) and federal agencies have taken steps to address this widespread problem, but there is much more to be done. Until we reform our own management of tigers here in the US, it will remain difficult for us to establish credibility and serve as an example when discouraging other nations from perpetuating exploitive displays like the Tiger Temple.


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Senior Program Advisor
Senior Program Advisor
Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
IFAW Veterinarian
Katie Moore, Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Loïs Lelanchon, Animal Rescue Program Officer
Animal Rescue Program Officer
Shannon Walajtys
Manager, Animal Rescue-Disasters
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy