Pet a Tiger on the Tummy

For those of you who have never traveled abroad, there are a fair number of things that the good ole US of A doesn’t allow that some of the rest of the world is okay with. I first learned of this disparity when I traveled to Central America and was climbing several hundred feet up the slippery limestone steps of an ancient Mayan pyramid. A thunderstorm blew in and three of us were stuck momentarily at the top, in a little stone cove where we watched the black clouds roll across the Guatemala border into Belize. That they let us up there isn’t the part that you’re looking for. That we climbed up way above the jungle tree tops on uneven, crumbling stone steps with no hand railings, handicapped access or signage of warning – that was the part that got me. The fall would have been clean off the side to the plaza below.

The part of this that lingers in my mind is how protected we are in our own country. There are laws, rules, right-of-way and lawyers for absolutely everything. We’re pretty laced up. We also expect to be protected since that is what we do here. So when you go to Asia and get to stand right in front of a three ton elephant, and aren’t told not to touch it, it’s a little daunting. In March I rubbed faces with an Asian elephant, and walked beside them with nothing in between me and them. Walking in the middle of five giant beasts, all headed to water break was thrilling – their size all around mine. And it was almost a run for me. It gives perspective as to how small a space I hold on the earth, that’s for sure. But I loved it. When I got up close to that giant shiny eye and long black eyelashes, I loved rubbing the rough skin of her nose and feeling her hot breath on my hands and cheek as she smelled me.

Then last Christmas we were in San Diego at the Wild Animal park and as a Christmas gift, my hubby gave me one of their “special encounters with a cheetah”. It was truly amazing for me as I have always loved the big cats and the cheetah, an endangered species, was 3 feet from me, in the same enclosure as me, breathing the same air. Her tail twitched at my feet. I sat in a chair with a handful of other lucky participants, as the cheetah handler answered our questions and moved her around so we could see her whole beautiful self. And I went to ask my most burning question, but it was answered before I even got the chance: Don’t touch. This beautiful, living, endangered, fascinating thing is three feet from you. DO NOT TOUCH. Why? Ha, you need to ask? Because it’s America and we have as many lawyers as we have stupid people who would ruin the experience for everyone else. Then they showed us her skill as a runner (as cheetahs are famous for doing) and she managed to out run the rabbit-on-a-reel that they used to train her. Sixty-something miles per hour for a straight quarter mile. It was all a very amazing experience and I wouldn’t take it back. I just wish it had happened in another country because then I might have been able to pet the coat of a cheetah. Here’s the video I took of the run. 

Fast forward to this Christmas. More encounters with large cats. We went to the Safari Park in Bali and the eight of us (our family and the other family we traveled with) were put in a cage on the back of a truck and driven past the animals who were not caged, they could come right to the truck, and they did, because there was chicken. The guys in the cage with us dangled chunks of raw chicken for the lions and I was happy when one of them came to be fed, and the other decided he wasn’t hungry enough. I’ll take that as a sign that they don’t starve them to get them to perform for tourists.

Next we fed elephants and zebra from our cage. They like carrots. The kids were thrilled. Camels and other exotic beasts in the dark; this was a night safari, it was all in the dark. Then the denouement: the tigers! Two tigers appeared from atop their giant rock perch, and approached the truck. The keeper/trainer spoke a couple of commands and the larger of the two (maybe he was just larger once he got that close to us?) hopped up on top of our cage. A 450 pound tiger on our heads.

He stood for a moment then lay down to get closer to the snack. His head was right above Chris. I handed him my camera and watched the giant furry head and teeth at work. His belly was over me and I looked up at it. “Oh, I want to touch!” I said meekly, as though I knew it was a wish that couldn’t be fulfilled. “You can touch!” the guide said. I think I squeaked. Then I reached up and petted a tiger on the belly. And I did it again, pausing only when he quit chomping chicken for a moment and noticed my fingers poking through the cage. I withdrew in a rush of adrenaline then he returned to his snack. I smiled and looked at that giant furry orange head again before lifting each of my kids up to touch a tiger, too.

Keep your eyes on those teeth when you do that!