Tigers at Thai Temple Drugged Up or Loved Up?

"This is the reason we came to Thailand," gushed Anne, visiting from Australia. "Actually lying next to it and feeling it breathing is just fantastic!"

But not all of the visitors were convinced, and one even insinuated that the tigers, calmly sleeping in the sun while tourists petted and prodded them, were drugged.

"I don't know what they're on but they've got to be on something if they're laying around like that," said Pete, also from Australia.

It's a persistent rumor that the temple rejects.

"A Buddhist monastery seriously drugging an animal? It's very dangerous to sedate animals. When they come out from under anaesthetic they are very disorientated. They will attack anything that moves," Steinhardt said.

A recent report by wildlife organization, Care for the Wild (CWI), went further, accusing the temple of illegally trafficking and mistreating the tigers, allegations that the temple emphatically denies.

Robyn Shelby, a law student from California, has been volunteering at the temple for seven months and told ABC News, "I haven't seen anything that I don't agree with, and I am very big on animal rights. These tigers are really happy and you can see that in their interactions with people."

Tigers Tamed Starting at 3 Weeks Old

ABC News spent three days at the temple and did not see any evidence of drugging or mistreating the animals.

Steinhardt says that the temple has nothing to hide.

"If somebody wants to investigate the temple, come here, have a look, film what you want to film, nothing is closed off to the public here," she said. "People can go anywhere they like, they can see anything they want."

The CWI report also raises concerns about the risks of close physical contact between the tigers and the tourists. So far the temple has been lucky and no one has been hurt, but the abbot is well aware of the potential danger.

"I don't want the accident," he said. "I don't want my tiger to kill human who come to see him from far away, like United States."

To help prevent such a disaster, the temple begins taming the cubs at just three weeks old. They are taken from their mothers and brought to live with humans.

Tim Pollard is the lucky man in charge of rearing this latest batch of cubs. He worked as a mounted policeman before becoming the tigers' caretaker.

"I'm their mum once we take them away from mum," Pollard said. "We live in the cage with them."

The abbot says his long-term mission is to find a suitable piece of land and release future generations of his cubs into the wild. This is at odds with the temple's practice of hand-rearing the cubs. Tame tigers can never survive in the wild, but the temple says it has a plan.

"What they intend to do here is, once they've got the area to release them, we'll move into a breeding program where the new cubs will be taught to look after themselves and from thereon they'll teach the next generation to fend for themselves and be released," Pollard explained.

Not everyone is convinced, and some believe the temple is less about conservation than exploitation.

Edwin Wiek, the founder of Wildlife Friends of Thailand, says the temple's mission is impossible.

"It's never worked and it will never work," Wiek told ABC News. "TheTiger Temple is a zoo, nothing more and nothing less."

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