KANCHANABURI, Thailand (AP) — Thai wildlife protection officers said they found no mistreatment of more than 100 tigers housed at a Buddhist temple that is a popular tourist attraction, though charges have been pressed for keeping rare birds there.
About 50 officials from the wildlife department and local religious affairs office, along with soldiers, made a three-hour inspection on Thursday of the Luangtamahabua Buddhist temple compound, famous for its tame-looking big cats living alongside Buddhist monks.
The so-called "Tiger Temple," which is virtually a petting zoo for visitors willing to muster up some courage, had been accused of drugging the creatures to keep them tame, allegations that the monks and the veterinarian who takes care of the animals have denied.
A wildlife department raid last week found that the temple was illegally keeping 38 hornbills and other protected bird species, which were confiscated.
The temple in the western province of Kanchanaburi began keeping tigers when it agreed to take care of seven Bengal tigers seized in a wildlife bust nearby in 2001. It now houses 143 tigers and cubs, a homegrown menagerie.
Temples are traditional sanctuaries for stray dogs, but the presence of the tigers raised eyebrows, especially when photos showed monks riding the animals and engaging in other horseplay with them. Buddhist monks are supposed to act soberly and modestly in all aspects of their lives. They still come out at noon and play with the animals in what has come to be a show for visitors.
Tourists happily pet the tigers and pose for close-up photos with them, while their donations help pay for the tigers' upkeep and improvements to the temple.
"The tigers are living in quite healthy conditions. They are well taken care of," said Cherdchai Jariyapanya, director of the regional office of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation. "They have had microchips embedded in them and the department has been informed every time a new cub is born." The chips contain information about the beasts' lineage and medical history, and are also used to help combat trafficking.
Cherdchai said he will report the results of the inspection to the department's director-general, who will decide whether the government will step in to take care of the tigers.
"The cost of handling the animals will be about more than 20 million baht ($612,000) a year, and we would have to build a new facility to support them. And we already have a number of confiscated tigers in our custody already," he told reporters.
Animal rights activists have expressed concerns about the welfare of animals at tourist attractions across Thailand, which has popular elephant camps, monkey shows and tiger farms.
Cherdchai said the police have pressed charges against the keeper of the exotic birds found on the temple's compound and will watch out for future violations of the wildlife protection laws.
"If we hear of any more complaints, we will strictly follow the law and send officials to search and make an arrest again," he said.