When I made plans for our staycation, I wanted to include something that I thought husband would enjoy. Despite his protests that all he wanted was no plans, I made reservations to swim with the tigers. Though the experience is on my life goal list based upon a news story I saw several years ago, I knew husband would enjoy it. After all, he is the one who, when asked the best part of our trip through Virginia on the motorcycle a few years ago, will reply, “Seeing the lion club up on the Skyline Drive.” (A couple was travelling through with an orphaned lion cub they were taking to their rescue). Though it was pricey, I figured after all, it was a vacation and not something we would do every day. So, I called and made reservations. And let the girl on the phone talk me into a tour of the zoo when our swim was done. Not six hours after I made the nonrefundable reservation, I heard an ad sponsored by PETA encouraging people not to go swim with the tigers and accusing the zoo of abusing the tiger cubs. I fretted about what to do, but reasoned that after all PETA had just lost a lawsuit against Ringling Brothers Circus because their arguments were based upon lies. I talked to a friend who I respect who reminded me that tigers are almost extinct and if man does not continue to breed them, they will not be around much longer. Today was our swim and though I was still concerned, we went ahead and drove to Dade City about an hour and a half away. We arrived at a small house converted into a ticket office and gift shop and were told to wait for the tram to come and pick us up. There were signs everywhere warning of their no photography policy. That should have been my first clue that something was up. We were taken to an area where the tiger interaction was held. It was clean and well landscaped, and the animals were in natural looking cages with a large swimming pool near the enclosure. I was relieved and relaxed enough to enjoy the experience. We were introduced to a tiger cub named Tora and our time with her was wonderful. The tiger handler was full of information, very careful of the cub and firm with instructions on how we should interact with her. Only eleven weeks old and the runt of a litter of four cubs, Tora was rejected by her mom at birth so the zoo stepped up to hand raise her. At least that is what we were told. Our job was to help socialize her on land and in the water. She was delightful as all baby animals are. We loved petting her soft fur, listening to her vocalize and watching her play. It was truly a magical experience. We should have stopped there, but still had the zoo tour to take. That’s when the magic ended. The zoo looked like one I might have visited as a child before we knew better. Small concrete cages with cement floors, bad smelling and hot. The otters swam in dirty water, monkeys that should have been in large colonies were single and alone, macaws pulled out their feathers and bears hit their heads on the metal roof of the enclosure when they stood up to full height. I felt sicker and sicker the farther we walked and finally told our guide I needed to leave and go sit down. She informed me that I was not allowed to leave the group. I understood a little of how the animals must feel. On our way out, we saw a large cattle trailer with two cages in it. Inside each cage was a big cat. When we asked why they were there, our guide said, “I am not supposed to talk about it.” So, it turns out, PETA was at least partially right. It made me think about all I have learned about human trafficking lately. Some call it a “victimless crime” insinuating that the women involved chose to be there instead of the truth that they are tricked into participating because of their need for love, food or shelter and then, shamed or drugged into staying. I kept thinking about a William Wilberforce quote said during the abolitionist movement in the 1800s, “You may chose to look the other way, but you can never again say that you didn’t know.” Would I swim with the tigers again or recommend that someone else do so? While it was an amazing experience, I could not in good conscience support it. Which I already did through my generous contribution to their organization in exchange for the swim. I drank the Kool-Aid and it made me sick.
Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. Hebrews 4:13 (NIV)