I’m writing this after visiting Tiger Kingdom in Phuket, Thailand.
For the uninitiated, it’s a facility that offers tourists — tigers which are human ready. One can pet the tigers, hug them and play with the cubs. It’s a fascinating thing to experience; walking alongside, sitting by them as they growl softly.
But this is not a Tiger Kingdom appreciation post that wants to romanticize the whole thing. As it is with most things, this too has a hidden side. The tigers inside seem sedated and thus a little slow. For a business centered around people interacting with tigers, lazy tigers are bad news, also for selfie hungry tourists. So the handler, who expects a tip for the service, pokes the tigers with a stick and annoys them. The tigers make angry faces which are perfect for the photographer whose charges are extra, to get that amazing picture — the tiger snarling and you grinning sheepishly behind it. But this is also not a PETA sponsored post that wants to shit on Tiger Kingdom.
This is an attempt to verify the ethical boundaries of a business model like Tiger Kingdom’s; to answer a simple question, should they be allowed to function or not?
I wish to answer this question through economic incentives, and hence the title. More generally, what I hope for this post to be is an example of looking at everyday things through incentives, about why humans do what they do.
The hope is to learn to look at problems with more clarity, less emotion and arrive at solutions more rational, powered by thoughts more deliberate.
Weighing the Incentives
One thing I’ve come to terms with after a lot of resistance is that humans are just not wired for collective interest (you might call me a cynic but I’m open to a discussion). We’ve primarily evolved to look after ourselves and our own. Everything that happens around us can be analyzed with this basic principle.
No one personally hates forests or the animals in them. The trees are being felled to satisfy someone’s self interests. The animals get killed to satisfy someone’s self interests. When we witness this from outside, we can’t make sense of it. Why are these humans doing something that’ll end up killing them? To understand this, we should go inside the sphere of influence of the action.
Let’s look at the incentives in the current context. For the owners of the Kingdom, it’s quite straightforward. They’re offering an experience which lots of people are willing to pay lots of money for. For the handler there’s a separate set of incentives at play. The bigger influx doesn’t matter to them, only the extra money tourists are willing to shell. The tourists don’t have a problem with that .
So everyone seems to be happy with the system, every incentive seems to be balanced. Except for that little voice in your head that wonders if the tigers deserve this. Why do they have to tolerate this nuisance of a person they can eat for breakfast? In a utopian world, they shouldn’t have to. There would be no need for this post there, but this is no utopia.
There’s no dearth of reasons humans would kill a tiger for. From “medicinal” to ornamental, the reasons are widespread. When places like Tiger Kingdom exist, reasons are created for tigers to exist. Everyone’s incentives there revolve around tigers, their well being. The tigers are “not in the way” of humans and there’s a rare alignment of interests. And I think the tigers and we could use more such spaces. A slightly improbable case could also be made, which is that humans connect emotionally to animals they interact with. This is what makes killing of pet species a taboo. In a time far away in the future, this could apply to wild animals too. But yes, slightly improbable theory.
So to answer the question that we set out to answer, yes, I think places like Tiger Kingdom should operate.
To a tiger that dreams of utopia and complains about living conditions, I’d first give a hug and then a copy of 1984.
But this approach is not without its challenges. Recently Tiger Temple which ran around similar models was shut down because it was discovered to be a major hub for trafficking. 40 dead cubs were found in the freezer. So there is a serious requirement of supervision.
The best chance for tigers is to have their interests aligned with ours.
Even though the tiger is not happy, I’d prefer its frown on its own head than on someone’s picturesque wall. A pissed tiger is better than a dead tiger.
But yes, Tiger Kingdoms of this world are very much a compromise, it’s not all sunshine and clear skies. A more resilient solution would be for humans to realize that economic incentives aren’t the only ones. Mere witnessing the diversity of life in this world is an incentive beyond measure, but inculcating this kind of thinking is a challenge beyond measure.
So today, I silence that little voice in my head, I have nothing better to say to it.