The baby tigers were hilarious. The ones that were only a few weeks old kept chewing on my knees and playing with the ties on my pockets. They would take a running start and slide into me, as if they were a big floppy puppy. It was a mess of cute to watch. Their chew toy was a mango that was still too new to eat. So it was hard and easy for them to gnaw on.
Tigers are cats/kittens and they act accordingly. When I would rub the little tiger's belly, he would push me with his back feet. I really wanted to squeeze his face, but they wouldn't let me get near the tigers' heads. But I did let the baby tigers bite on me, which I got into trouble for twice. The babies moved around a lot, so it was really hard for me to get a good image of them.
When you arrive to each of the cages, the men (yes, only men) inside the cages are wearing short-sleeved shirts and jeans, and carrying sticks to direct the cats with. I was very clear with them about not using the sticks at all, that I wanted the cats to react to me as they would. Only once did one of the guys try to hit one of the tigers, one of the largest ones. It was because the tiger started flicking his head around and he thought his face was getting too close to me or something.
Basically it went like this: I chose to see 3 sizes of tigers and during one of my sessions, a photographer would take pictures of me with the tiger. I chose for my photos to be taken with the largest tigers. I saw the tigers in this order: small (babies), giant (below), and medium. And within each cage, several tigers were meandering about. So really, if one of the tigers decided that this was his chance to take down humans it would have been very easy for him to do so. I was locked in, and they were a heck of a lot stronger than me and the man with a stick.
When I got into the large tigers' cage, it was still as if they were just large domesticated cats. None of them looked thin or unhealthy. And they played with a fierce power, something I had never seen before--especially up so close. You can see in my series of images with Joyia (the big girl above and below) that she is lazing about in a very cat-like manner. (She looks unhappy, but I really don't think she is.) She sees one of the other cats in the pool, raises her head in a very hunting-esque manner, and within seconds she is in the pool and they begin this play-fight: water splashing everywhere and big cat growling. Lots of big cat growling! Once they were done, I found her again and got some more pictures taken with her.
I felt really strange about the whole photography thing. There were some young 20-somethings there acting like they were in a Rick Ross video, using the cats as props. And that's what they sort of tell you to do at Tiger Kingdom. My photographer kept wanting me to lounge on the tiger, play like it was some glorified stuffed animal. But I couldn't do it. That wasn't my purpose. It's a living thing, not a toy.
What I liked about Tiger Kingdom: being able to meet tigers and touch them, squeeze their toes and rub my hands up and down their tails. I got to call their name and they would respond. I would watch them eat bamboo leaves and hack them back up again, just like a normal house cat with grass. I got to count their stripes as I rubbed my hands all over their bellies. And, I got to experience something extremely personal and magical that I will never-ever be able to experience again.