Phuket Zoo is just one of many places in Thailand that offers photo opportunities with large tigers. Currently there are two adult tigers – Susu and Lucy - who have, for at least the last four years, been chained up for these photos. As of last year, there are also now three juveniles that appear to be rotated out for photos too.
How does it work?
These tigers are chained to raised platforms (or a bench in the case of the younger tiger) and kept there all day. The tigers are not permitted any breaks or free access to food and water. On our assessment visits over the years we have seen these tigers hand fed chicken, provided water in a bowl, showered to keep cool and even observed the swift method of collecting the tiger’s excrement, all whilst the tiger is chained.
Originally these photos were an extra cost, outside of the general cost of the entrance fee – two years ago entrance was 400THB with any additional photo ops (tigers, orangutans and elephants) all being an extra 300THB. As of 2018 though, the zoo changed their pricing now charging a whopping 1500THB for entry, which includes any of the photos tourists might wish to take with any of the animals.
What are the living conditions?
For the rest of the tigers (there's 15 in total), and presumably the photo prop tigers once their day is done, the tigers live in small 4x4m barren concrete cages. There are enclosures, but these aren’t much better. For the most part, these enclosures are just large cages – concrete-floored - though if the tiger is lucky, also featuring a shallow pond and a platform to hide under.
One out-of-the-way area does have some significantly better enclosures which feature natural substrate and a range of vegetation affording the tiger some means of hiding. The younger tigers aren’t so lucky and are chained (even off photo op duty) in small 2x3m concrete cages. It’s a rather dismal existence.
So what has happened?
Recently, through social media, further videos have surfaced showing one of the tigers pacing on a short chain. We ourselves have posted similar videos numerous times, but to no avail. However, this time, the video made an impact, possibly due to the connection with a recent Nat Geo article describing animal abuse within the tourism industry on a global scale.
The Department of National Parks (DNP) have taken notice, investigating the zoo where social media has proclaimed the tigers to be tortured and drugged in order to get them to comply for the photos. However, when they arrived at 1pm, 17th June, there were no tigers out for photos in any of the display areas.
Phuket Zoo hits back
Representatives of Phuket Zoo have responded stating that the tigers are neither drugged nor abused, statements, which seem to be seconded by the government officials. Phuket management further states that most of the tigers have been raised in Phuket Zoo and as such know their handlers and are looked after well. In addition, they state that there's no point to drugging or abuse as this would affect their image, reducing the income they receive from tourists.
Upon inspection the DNP found no evidence of drugging and that the tigers all appeared in good health throughout the zoo, with the chain being a necessary safety measure as stated by Phuket Zoo management. They concluded that there was no evidence of animal cruelty within the zoo.
What happens now?
At this time it appears the suspension for such photos is only for three weeks and with government officials not banning the photos, and it being one of the main attractions to gain money, it is likely photos will resume again soon. Phuket Zoo is far from the only facility within Thailand that chains tigers in public for photos. This makes it hard for government officials to prevent these photos from taking place … if it stops one, it has to stop them all.
And that doesn’t look like it will happen any time soon.