During our trip to Phuket, my father and I had planned to see the zoo, and it was one of the outings that we were both relishing. The first noticeable sign as you approach Phuket Zoo points out that foreigners pay 5 times more for entry than Thai people. Imagine a sign stating that British people pay 5 times less than foreigners at London Zoo? We walked inside, laughing about the thought of that inverted sign.
The smell was a little funky at first, but it is a zoo after all. The first section was full of timid creatures, all seemingly looking like placid herbivores, despite some of them being very large. As we walked along, glancing into the pits, I had a feeling that something was looking at me. I looked up and saw some form of deer looking straight back at me, no fence, no barrier, no nothing. I wasn’t sure how to feel. Happy, that is wasn’t a lion? Or panic, because it’s still a wild animal? I’m not one for panic, so I just walked back up the path and warned families with small children about the escaped animal. I couldn’t find any staff, so in the end I left it at that. Fortunately the deer seemed happy enough grazing and wasn’t too interested in any humans.
The crocodile enclosure was up next, and it was disgusting. There must have been 1,000 crocs in a space not even big enough for 100. The barrier was less than a metre high on the visitor side, and anyone could easily fall in. We went to see the crocodile show in the centre of the park around 1pm, and it was scary right from the off. At least the barrier was higher this time. The two entertainers were surrounded by a moat of croc-infested waters, watched eagerly by a stadium stand full of people.
Strangely enough the crocodiles at Phuket Zoo looked like they were trying to avoid the men more than feed on them. They would be dragged by the tail onto the dry land in the middle and a large bamboo stick would be placed near their mouths which they would bite down onto and obliterate. After a few bamboo snappings, one of the crazy young men moved the bamboo over the crocs eyes, forcing them shut. The croc now could not see, but had its mouth wide open. This Thai man looked around 25, but clearly he wasn’t fussed about reaching 26. He got on his hands and knees, rocked backwards and forwards as if building courage, then BOOM his head went straight into the crocs mouth to the gasp of the audience.
After 5 seconds that felt more like 5 years, he pulled away and even used the bamboo to make the croc finally snap as he stood up. Huge applause, a gutsy show. For some extra money you can come to the front and pick up the crocodiles by their tails. I did, and it felt like I would imagine a dragon to feel, scaly and heavier than I was comfortable with. I couldn’t help but think about those poor Thai men. The crocodile show is on 3 times a day, 365 days a year. Over 1,000 times a year they have to put their heads into the mouths of crocodiles, just to feed their family. Do they even get paid? Or is it just the photos with visitors that pays them? No wonder you never see an old man doing it.
The natural progression from there is the elephant show. On approach, you can have your photo taken on the back of an elephant for a small fee, we were late for the show and politely declined. The elephant show involved squirting water on each other in a slapstick scene, playing football (soccer) to a very high standard and finished with painting flowers using their trunk to pick up the paintbrush. All in all, it was very impressive. The money spinner on this one was to auction the painting at the end of the show. It went for a quite a fee.
After gawking at the reptiles we meandered through to a clearing where not many people were around. I could see why. On top of a large round stone with a flat top, was a fully grown 2.5 metre long tiger. It’s head and neck were thicker than my whole body, and it was tied down with a chain less than an inch in diameter. A man with an SLR camera around his neck approached us and asked if we would like a photo with the tiger. I said yes without missing a beat, but had to ask a question first. There was another Thai man, holding a stick in one hand, and missing the other hand. I’m sure he gets this every day, but I had to ask if the tiger had bitten it off. He unconvincingly assured me that it was a birth defect and I stood near the tiger, ready for the photo.
“Sit down” the camera man said, ushering me with his hand. I looked at him like anyone would when being asked to sit next to a tiger. He pushed me onto the stone and I looked out of the corner of my eye at this beautiful beast, our heads now only a foot apart, and I must admit my heart was pumping. “Lean back!” he shouts, smiling as if it were only a statue of a tiger. This is where I draw the line. I’m not using this gargantuan predator as a chaise longue. Once again, choice didn’t come into it. He put the camera back around his neck, grabbed me under the armpits and shifted me up against the impressive orange and black ribs. Then I was pushed in the chest until I was resting back on the tiger, who was looking around as if nothing was happening. Finally, my left arm was lifted over the tigers head as if we were best pals posing for our holiday snaps. Just before the picture is taken, the one armed man uses the stick to poke the tiger in the upper leg, forcing a huge roar from its beastly mouth, in an attempt to enhance the photo opportunity.
At the time, I felt sorry for the animals but that was far outweighed by my selfish happiness at what I had experienced. On reflection, the crocodiles are treated terribly, as I’m sure are the elephants and monkeys (we missed that show) and I witnessed first hand the bad treatment of the tigers. If they poke them with sticks when visitors are present, imagine what they do when nobody is there. They aren’t naturally docile creatures, so clearly drugs are involved too. I wouldn’t go again out of principle, and the only way we can stop this torture is if we all stop going to this zoo.
Cost: 500 THB per person entry, around 100THB per photo.