Cane in one hand, leash in the other, the Venerable Phusit Khantitharo looks like an elderly country gentleman taking his pet on an afternoon stroll. At a gnarled monkey-bread tree, Skywards – the 400-pound Indo-Chinese tiger on the other end of the leash – lifts his tail and with a quick, well-aimed squirt of urine lays claims to the premises. Some of it ends up on my shoe.
Phusit chuckles: "Ha ha, souvenir for you!"
Let's hope Skywards will forfeit his territorial rights over me. His casual swipe of a paw could seriously compromise my general well-being. The abbot of the Wat Luangta Bua Yannasampanno monastery is walking the beast to "Tiger Valley," an unused quarry on the 300 acres of forested monastery grounds in rural Kanchanaburi province, 100 miles west of Bangkok.
Phusit, a sinewy man with square grandpa spectacles, often wheels around the monastery on a yellow tricycle that complements his saffron robes. Thanks to his fame as a tiger whisperer, the monk has become something of a celebrity in Thailand.
Fellow Buddhists from around the kingdom make pilgrimages to his "Tiger Temple," bringing their most prized amulets to have their protective properties enhanced in the propitious, atavistic ambience of awesome beasts tamed by a holy man. The temple also offers meditation courses for people intent on "taming the tiger within." The aim is to eliminate arrogance and anger through contemplating aspects of the majestic animal, which from Cambodia to Tibet retains an exalted role in Buddhist spirituality.
Yet for most visitors, the real draw isn't spirituality; it's the thrill of mingling with uncaged predators. To capitalize on its growing popularity with tourists, the monastery has recently started charging admission fees of 300 baht ($8) a person to recoup costs of caring for the tigers.
As Phusit and Skywards approach Tiger Valley with a nervous group of day-trippers in tow, the abbot warns them to stay behind the tigers and avoid stepping on their tails.
The 16 other tigers are already in the valley for their daily recreation. Some loll in the shade of outcrops; others laze drowsily atop rocks. Four 8-month-old cubs – already formidable carnivores bound in springy muscle – are splashing merrily around in a pond. On their way from their cages to the playground, the boisterous cubs sometimes take off in playful chase after one of the myriad water buffaloes, gaurs, wild boars, barking deer, ponies, and peacocks that share the poacher-free shelter of the monastery grounds, scattering the grazing animals helter-skelter. Sky Place, a 2-year-old tigress occasionally reluctant to walk in the sweltering heat, may in turn hitch piggyback rides on a brawnier monk.
Although the fearsome predators seem as harmlessly relaxed as pet cats on their siesta, an instinctive lunge could land you in serious trouble. And the five resident monks and their several volunteer-keepers could do little to help; they're armed only with water bottles for "restraining" the animals. "If you splash the tigers in the face, they stop whatever they're doing and slink away," says Arvind, a young Indian-American veterinary student on a two-week volunteer stint. He has an unsightly cut on a bicep and another on a shoulder. "Some of the cubs like to play rough, that's all," he notes.
The abbot himself disciplines unruly felines simply by appealing to their better nature. "If they get naughty, I scold them," he says. "I tell them, 'Be good and don't bring shame on yourself.' I need to educate them, you see."
Storm, a stately 7-year-old male, lounges in the shade under a beach parasol. Phusit tells me to lower myself into the folded-kneed lotus position beside the tiger. But I'm not to start meditating (though fervent prayer will presently serve me well). "Hold his head like that, good for pictures," the abbot tells me in English, and I find myself cradling Storm's head in my lap.
Storm loves posing for photographs, I'm told; he's recently gained national fame starring in a soap opera appropriately called "The Tiger." He yawns, baring his fangs; I freeze.
Storm arrived in 1999 as a mewing, week-old kitten and was named after Thunderstorm, the abbot's first adopted tiger cub who had just died. Phusit had by then acquired a reputation locally as a Dr. Doolittle of sorts, treating and feeding a variety of injured wild animals and abandoned pets brought to his care. Thunderstorm's mother had been poached in the lawless jungles near the Thai-Burmese border. A few weeks later, Storm and his twin were brought to the monastery by locals – their mother, too, killed by poachers.
"I didn't know what to do with them, but I couldn't just let them die," Phusit recalls. Soon another cub was brought, and another. "Poachers think the bad karma of killing a tigress is cancelled out by saving her cubs."
As long as poached tigers fetch up to $6,000 on the black market, Phusit can expect a steady supply of cubs. The slaughtered adult animals are smuggled to apothecaries in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Shanghai where they become indispensable ingredients for holistic remedies for all manner of human ailment.
Over the past century, 95 percent of Asia's once-ubiquitous tigers have disappeared. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that the Indo-Chinese tiger population has dwindled to between 1,200 and 1,800. With their jungle habitat disappearing, their future may lie only in captivity.
Several of the Tiger Temple's own 17 cats were born here. Funding is being raised for a 12-acre reserve to afford them a more natural environment, from which future generations could perhaps be released back into the wild.
Today's temple tigers couldn't survive alone, and surely they'd also be loath to give up their privileges such as rubdowns in traditional Thai massage, cuddling with keepers, and using monks' feet as pillows for naps. And sweet-toothed Skywards still relishes the tasty milk tablets they were fed as cubs.
"I love them all equally. They're my children," says the abbot, who treats the animals with a spiritual familiarity. He believes his temple's striped residents were fellow monks in their previous incarnation. If they lead peaceful lives, they'll be rewarded by being reborn as humans again, he says. He's convinced by Skywards's vigilance and pensive gaze that the 4-year-old tiger is the re-incarnation of a former monastery gatekeeper.
Still, spiritual overtones notwithstanding, hobnobbing with the big cats can be a nerve-racking experience. Witness the burly Russian tourist standing beside Sunshine: While being photographed, he forces a tortured grin.
The abbot himself has no such fears. Ja, a taxi driver who often brings tourists to the monastery, tells me that a few minutes before 5 each afternoon, just as their daily four-hour outing is about to end, tigers that would rather be back at their caged quarters and have a bite of dog and cat food (their main dietary staple) begin to get restless. "[Phusit] calls out to them, 'Take it easy, just five more minutes!' And they immediately calm down. They always listen to him!"