Mike Thvedt: freelancer, vagabond.

The Rock That Didn't Keep Tigers Away

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Any trip to Southeast Asia is not safe without a rock to keep tigers away. The anti-tiger effect was first pointed out in this dialogue from The Simpsons:

Lisa: [to Homer] By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.

Homer: Oh, how does it work?

Lisa: It doesn’t work.

Homer: Uh huh.

Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock.

Homer: Uh huh.

Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?

Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.

It is hard to argue with this reasoning demonstrating the powerful anti-tiger properties of certain “stupid rocks”. Though it might appear the rock “doesn’t work”, Lisa demonstrates that the statistical evidence is clear. There are tigers in Thailand, so I purchased one as soon as I got to Bangkok (a bargain at 2000 Thai Baht) and by carrying it around with me I saw, in fact, no tigers at all for almost two weeks.

But one one trip to Mae Rim, in the rainforests of northern Thailand, my rock must have ran out of power or something, because this happened:

The first dangerous part of the trip to Mae Rim was the bus ride. The preferred local form of transportation is the songthaew–imagine Elmer Fudd trying to say ‘songtail’–a converted pickup with a roof over the bed and two benches.

The songthaew driver managed to pack 19 people (by my count) into his truck. Six on each bench, three (including me) on stools in the center aisle, two hanging on outside, and two in the cabin. The truck seemed to struggle with the weight.

I was the only foreigner on the truck. Inches from me was a monk and his assistant. Some of the Thai seemed amused that I was riding the locals’ budget transportation. The monk did not appear to be amused. You’d think someone who devoted his life to Buddhism would hide his feelings a little better.

They got off over the course of the journey. By the time I reached the outskirts of Mae Rim, out in the jungle north of the city of Chiang Mai, it was only me.

The place is called Tiger Kingdom and it’s the place to go if you like tigers. The other major ‘tiger spot’, the Tiger Temple near Bangkok, is known to drug, beat, and chain their tigers. The Tiger Kingdom does not use inhumane methods. (They do, however, carry little wooden sticks. They hit the tigers’ noses with it to sting them. The sticks are quite puny–it’s hard to imagine inadvertently hurting a tiger with them). Western tiger activists work with the tiger trainers to ensure humane conditions. (I would wager that the Thai trainers probably don’t need Western help–they’re just there for credibility.)

I ended up meeting a random Dutch fellow at the park and we became each others’ temporary travel companions and picture-taking buddies. He worked in the dyke industry. I didn’t make any jokes and am a little proud of that.

It being about 95°F that day, the tigers were pretty docile. Some of them, however, were pretty frisky. Watching them bask and play, I was surprised how much the tigers were like big cats–or perhaps how much housecats are like small tigers.

These frisky tiger cubs are 5 months old.

The tigers are naturally playful–even the big ones in the intense heat–and the trainers are worried about the tigers trying to play with visitors. I was unable to get a good video of a big tiger playing, but you can imagine the effect of such an animal trying to play with a human. Roy Horn, of Siegfried and Roy, was mauled when his trained pet tiger got confused during a show gone wrong and attempted to drag Horn to safety. Imagine a tiger mother carrying a cub by the neck–that’s what it did to Horn. The tiger failed to anticipate that this maneuver would not have the intended effect when applied to squishy human flesh.

Fortunately, the park is fully insured, according to the FAQ posted on the wall:

That’s $3400 and $270,000 respectively. It’s nice to know human life is so highly valued.

But tigers are dangerous not out of malice but because they naturally don’t know to be gentle with humans. All will be fine if you follow the rules they set out for you, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Don’t approach a tiger from the front. They might try to play with you.

  • Don’t look a tiger in the eye. They might try to play with you.

  • If you pet a tiger, rub it very hard. A soft pet will feel like tickling to them, and then the tiger might try to play with you.

  • Stay away from playful tigers.

Then as I lay down and hugged a six hundred pound apex predator, the trainer tells me, “Don’t hug too close or he bite you.” And–as seems to happen often in Thailand–I felt a brief moment of heightened awareness for the fleeting nature of existence.


Songthaew photo is due to Philipp L. Wesche and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 license.