In the North of India, lost somewhere in the heart of Rajasthan, near a tiny town with a single dirt road, I went looking for tigers. In a national park as big as a small country, the way you look for tigers is simple: you drive and drive across prairies and through forests, around lakes and over hills, and then maybe, just maybe, if a tiger is near, the monkeys in the trees might just see flickers of orange through the long grass, and call out to their buddies that danger is near. Then you drive straight towards where the sound of danger is coming from, stop and be very still and silent, and then maybe, just maybe, if you’re very lucky, very quiet and look the hardest you’ve ever looked before, you might see a tiger.
Tigers like it best at dawn and dusk, so those are the times when we went looking for them. It took us one dusk and two dawns to find one. We had seen wild crocodiles, different types of owls, monkeys — so many monkeys — and majestic sambar deer with the best antlers I’ve ever seen. But no tigers, not yet. There were five of us in a jeep plus a guide, who drove in the jungle the same wild way locals drive on the streets. He hadn’t seen a tiger in the last few weeks, even though he was extremely good at listening for monkey warning calls. Tracking skills and good ears aren’t enough. It’s just luck.
On the last dawn, we drove deeper into the park than we ever had before and found the ruins of an old, majestic hunting lodge which had long since been abandoned. It felt so special to find something ancient and untouched — but in India there are so many ruins that they can’t all be attractions. So they just sit and get covered in vines and overrun with monkeys; proper ruins, ruins you usually only find in books. Near the ruins, we heard a warning call. We drove straight towards it, stopped, sat still and silent, and looked the hardest we’ve ever looked before.
I saw her first and forgot all about being still and silent. Gasping and half choking I screamed, “THERE SHE IS!” because there she was. After that, despite being probably the stoniest person I know, I started crying. Crying because she was just so big. She was so fucking big and beautiful, she walked slowly but with incredible purpose and she didn’t look at us once, and her ears were pricked. She was four metres close and so, so big. She’s still the best thing I’ve ever seen.
Recently, a middle-aged Australian man was mauled by the tiger that he was trying to cuddle in a place called Tiger Kingdom, Phuket. The attack was many things: a tragedy, an inevitability and a reminder — tigers are not supposed to be in enclosures. They aren’t supposed to be docile like a household pet. Tigers already have a kingdom, they don’t need us to build them a new one out of concrete. Ironically, the man who was attacked probably had the realest and most authentic tiger experience of anyone else who has gone to that place. Tigers eat people. It’s what my tiger — fierce, fearsome, a predator, a queen — it’s what she would have done.
The tigers that exist in these tourist-trap tiger parks are not real tigers. They are half of what they could be, what they’re meant to be, and reduced still by drugs and boredom. All so that ignorant people who want to look like they’ve been doing something cool can take a photo lying next to them and rake in a few likes on social media. When people pay for that kind of tiger experience, they are prioritising novelty and a photo opportunity over the fact that they are facilitating exploitation and cruelty.
Obviously, it’s not tigers alone that are being exploited. Most of us should know by now that elephants aren’t built to carry weight on their backs, that they’re family-oriented and separating one from her friends is torture. In India, I saw dogs run over and left to bleed to death on street corners, and horses with ruptured abscesses on their hooves from walking on concrete all day without shoes.
The strange thing is that most of us come from places with a very low tolerance for animal exploitation or cruelty. Very few of us buy fur, we don’t condone circuses with performing animals, we buy free-range eggs, we take dogs away from people who can’t properly look after them. I remember not that long ago in New Zealand when a cat got shot and it was front-page news. Yet still, thousands go to Thailand and visit these parks or ride those elephants — their long-held convictions about the treatment of animals apparently gone. How do we let this happen? And why?
One part of the problem is that when we travel to exotic places we are so readily confronted with pictures that challenge our western sensibilities that we become desensitised. This desensitisation is often seen as a true triumph of modern travel — to accept and observe rather than to judge and ridicule. It’s an Into the Wild-esque goal of shedding the conservative values which our society imposes on us in favour of broadening our minds; letting go of the idea that the west is best and will continue to be until everyone else on the planet lives their lives and runs their countries exactly like we do. So, we see an ill-treated animal and think, How horrible — but who am I to judge how this culture chooses to operate? Who am I to tell them what is right or wrong?
I, of all people, know the danger of believing that where we come from is superior to anywhere else we could go — in Barcelona I lived with a particularly ridiculous American who firmly believed that the United States is the centre of the universe (“The Spanish don’t know ANYTHING about cheeseburgers”, “I’m going to teach Barcelona a thing or two about how we party in Chicago!!!!”). Obviously one of the points of travel is to let the world teach us a lesson or two and then to question the way that we choose to live our lives at home. But there is a danger of straying too far into the opposite direction, too, the danger of accepting without question that which is, or rather ought to be, universally wrong and fucked up.
Animal cruelty abroad is one of those things. The exploitation of animals in places like India or Thailand is so common that we easily forget to notice the abject cruelty which is happening before our eyes and which in most cases, we ourselves are funding.
During my time in India, I tried to rationalise my desensitisation to the cruelty of animals around me by arguing that there are issues of human rights which need to be addressed before we focus our minds on critters. No. If you dumb down that rationalisation to its core, what you are basically saying is: Oh, it’s fine for me to accept a ride on this man’s emaciated, partially-blind camel because somewhere in this city a family doesn’t have enough for dinner. Just because one problem exists doesn’t mean another isn’t important. When you can contribute to the resolution of the problem simply by not patting the tiger, then it’s pretty fucked if you still do.