Tigers at Thai Temple Drugged Up or Loved Up?

Deep in the heart of Western Thailand, where the River Kwai weaves through the rich green jungle, the monks of the Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua Temple are beginning their day.

They walk through the town and collect alms from the locals. But back at the temple for breakfast and prayers, it's clear that this Buddhist monastery is like no other, for this handful of monks live with some of the deadliest animals in the world.

They call it the Tiger Temple, and its story is the stuff of fairy tales. According to Abbot Pra-Acharn Phusit, a tiger cub orphaned by poachers was brought to the temple years ago.

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The abbot cared for her and, as word spread, more people brought sickly and orphaned cubs to the temple's doorstep. Those cubs went on to have their own cubs, and nine years on there are now 34 tigers living here.

The Buddhists believe in reincarnation and the abbot feels that these tigers are his family. As he told ABC News, "I think they are my babies: my son, my daughter, my father, mother. If not in the present life, in the past life."

Buddhists also believe that animals, like humans, are sentient beings.

"When the tiger angry, when you angry, it's the same. When you hungry, when the tiger hungry, it's the same. When you tired, when the tiger tired, it's the same!" the abbot explains.

He has used this understanding to raise some of the tamest tigers in the world, catapulting this small forest monastery into the international limelight.

Every afternoon, up to 1,000 tourists from across the world flock to the Tiger Temple for their very own personal tiger experience.

And what they see is unlike any American zoo exhibit. Tiger Temple is hands-on, meaning visitors can pet the enormous cats and even hold their heads in their laps for photos.

"I'd seen it on the tellie before I left Ireland, so I was dying to do it when I got here. They're just so beautiful," tourist Georgina Stanley told ABC News.

Tiger Temple Draws Global Visitors

The abbot has hired more than 50 people to help care for his growing family and growing business. Margarita Steinhardt first came to the temple from Russia seven years ago and is now one of the head caretakers of the tigers.

"Somebody mentioned that there is a monastery where you can come and look at the tigers if you want. I did and they had little cubs at the time," she said. "As soon as I saw them and touched them I just lost myself to them. I asked the abbot if I could stay, and he said all right, and then I stayed on and on and on."

As with the rest of the staff, Steinhardt, who was studying conservation biology in Australia before arriving at the temple, had little prior experience working with animals. The monastery has invited some animal experts to visit, including one famous Canadian trainer, but the animals' daily care is left to the monks and other staffers rather than trained animal professionals. They turn to local veterinarians when the tigers get sick.

Tourists visiting the Tiger Temple pay big money: anything from $15 just for entry, up to $50 for the very special photograph of a tiger with its head in your lap. The temple says the money goes toward caring for the tigers (each animal eats 13 pounds of meat a day) and construction of "Tiger Island," where it is hoped the tigers will soon move to live in larger enclosures.

Most of the tourists ABC News spoke with said it was worth every penny.

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