We have to accept that we may never know everything that really happened at the Tiger Temple. There are many sides and issues to this multifaceted story. It’s a corruption story, an animal rights story, a crime story — and a love story to the many foreign volunteers who tirelessly donated their time.
Gary Agnew is a Canadian and tiger-lover who has been involved with the Tiger Temple for a decade. He traveled to Thailand each year to volunteer for one or two months. He collected donations and helped out with other tasks remotely when he was at home in Calgary.
Since the raid hit international news, Agnew claimed he has received so many threats from animal activists that he has had to disable his websites, for Save Tigers Association of Canada and tigertemple.ca as they were allegedly being flooded with negative comments and threats from animal activists complaining about his involvement.
The newly-retired recruitment executive and career coach was quoted in a high-profile National Geographic article about possible involvement with animal trafficking by temple officials. That article may have helped to launch the investigation that led to all the tigers being removed last month.
This is the first interview he’s given about the recent developments at the temple.
Coconuts Bangkok: How did you first learn about the Tiger Temple?
Gary Agnew: I was a director on the board of the Calgary Zoo and a lifelong animal lover. In 2004, we lost our Bengal Tiger and I was placed on a committee assigned to finding a new tiger. In my research, I learned about the Tiger Temple.
I was intrigued by the idea of a temple raising tigers. They only had nine at the time. I made a life-changing decision to go to Thailand and investigate.
I spent two weeks in the temple. I met the abbot [Luangta Chan], talked to him and became close to him. He’s a very bright man, well educated. At that time, the monks and caregivers were very hands-on with the tigers. They were treated with love, respect and caring.
Every year since 2005, I’ve lived in the temple for one to two months. I stayed with the monks, meditated with them, taught English to the staff and spent time with the tigers. In 2009, a mother tiger rejected her litter, which is very common [as high as 80 percent for the first litter], I was assigned to care for them. I slept in their cage with them for six weeks.
Even then, we had to be careful, there were poachers in the temple. Strangers lurking around the property at night, trying to poach. The security has never been good there.
And the tigers are exposed to lots of people. They are bathed and hand-fed every day. They end up trusting people, even poachers.
Do you think the tigers were happy?
Animals do not multiply if they are not comfortable, or if they are depressed. In fact, the reproducing got to be so much that the foreign volunteers instituted a program to keep the siblings apart (to avoid inbreeding). We tried to institute a contraceptive program but it was shut down by the abbot since it is against Buddhist law.
And what about the dead cubs found in the freezer?
That was a directive from [former temple veterinarian] Somchai [Visasmongkolchai], it was to demonstrate that they died naturally and were not being sold.
A lot of cubs were stillborn or just didn’t make it. Unfortunately, the public doesn’t know that the natural rate of death for tiger cubs is as high as 40 percent.
In November 2015, I was in the freezer with the Department of National Parks (DNP) officials talking to them about what to do with these dead cubs cause Somchai was no longer around.
In January 2016, I talked to the assistant deputy director again and was told, “Don’t worry about them, we’ll dispose of them.” The fiasco of them “finding” the cubs was a load of crap. They used it as a media event to position themselves as the good guys.
I’ve lost a lot of respect for the Thai government through all of this and for the people involved with the DNP. The way they handled the tiger removal was tragic, but they aren’t dealing with facts or trying to figure out where the problems are, they just closed the place. That was the worst thing they could do. Those tigers are all doomed. They are going to be sold, traded, they will die.
You’ve referred on social media to the tigers being sold. But the government indicates that they want to release the native species after DNA testing?
That’s an impossibility that will never happen. Tigers that have been in captivity, no matter what type of situation, can never be released into the wild. They have no fear of man, they will go to a poacher expecting to get fed and get killed.
I even have it on tape from November 2015, the head of the DNP is talking about selling these tigers.
Tell me about the incident in 2014, when three tigers disappeared?
There is no question that, in 2014, three tigers disappeared, they were poached and it was an inside job. I’m pretty sure Somchai had something to do with it, and if I’m honest, I’m pretty sure the abbot was involved too.
How do you know that?
I researched it myself in June and July of 2015. Personal interviews, videos of people admitting to being part of it, discussion with staff indicating that the abbot knew about it.
The research that I did indicated that Somchai was fired because he was implicated in the death of the three tigers. I handed all my research over to the Thai Police.
What exactly happened to the tigers?
Those three tigers were destroyed because their microchips couldn’t be removed.
What made me think it was an inside job was the timing. They were stolen on two separate nights. Both nights when the foreign staff was off-premises for celebrations, which indicated someone that knew the schedule.
The thief returned the next month and stole two more tigers. I believe that someone had committed to producing one live tiger but couldn’t do it because they couldn’t remove the microchips.
I believe it was Somchai, he didn’t have the skill to remove the chips without killing the tigers. So they died when someone tried to remove them.
Shortly afterwards, all three microchips showed up at the temple with Somchai. He claimed that someone gave them to him.
What most people don’t know is that the chips move around in the tiger. It would take an extremely skilled surgeon to remove one of those.
What about allegations that the tigers were drugged to allow them to be docile enough to allow tourists to take pictures with them?
Look at the physiology of tigers: they are active at night, they hunt at night. They naturally sleep most of the day, they are drowsy then, they sleep 60 percent of their life. Tigers in the wild eat once a week. We fed them everyday, up to 10 kilos of chicken every single day. People see them sleeping and say “Oh, they are drugged.”
It’s not natural for a tiger to let a human interact like that with it.
I can tell you on my mother’s grave, those tigers were not drugged. I would have never been involved with a place like that. They were not sedated, there were no drugs at the temple. In fact, if humans were found with drugs they were thrown out.
Could it have been happening without you knowing?
No, it’s impossible, I was too involved, I was cooking their food, I was behind the scenes. I spent my nights with a flashlight checking for things. I was investigating for as many years as I was there. I went out of my way to watch for things and interview people.
Were there parts of temple you had no access to?
Not really, the security was not that great.
Was there any mistreatment of tigers?
Yes, there were some Thai workers that were harsh with the tigers and they might strike them with a stick or pull their tail, but nothing really bad.
We’d step in and report the guys and get them expelled if they were abusive to the tigers. When you’re dealing with a group of 100 employees, they aren’t all great employees, it’s like that in any company, but they were dealt with.
But, you know, people with cameras tend to film and share the bad stuff more than the good stuff, unfortunately.
Tell me about your tiger training.
I learned most of it while volunteering at the Tiger Temple, there are some very bright people with lots of experience with large animals there. But I also took a four-week course with a tiger handler, in Thailand.
Have your views on the temple changed in light of last few weeks?
I’ll never regret giving my time there. I learned a lot. But, I’m not saying there was no wrongdoing. Some things needed to change. The abbot wasn’t a good personal leader, he was a religious leader.
I feel betrayed. I personally know the monk and employees that were smuggling out the amulets and pelts. I’m glad they were caught but I do not believe that the abbot didn’t know about it. The way he managed the temple, he knows what’s happening anywhere. For him to claim that he didn’t know is…I’m sorry he could not not know. He turned a blind eye or acquiesced and that hurts. But he’s not prepared to stand and speak. And stand up for what he said. He denied it in my last meeting with him in February. I have heard testimony from people that say they did things because he told them to.
The numbers I’ve heard about what a tiger is worth on the black market is staggering [THB7 – THB8.8 million]. If they were involved with that, they should be put away forever. No one is above reproach if they are going to be abusive to tigers or any animal.
There is definitely something unsavory that has happened with the management of the Tiger Temple. But the amount of allegations and inappropriate allegations and innuendos that have never been proven and the actions taken. Who loses? The tigers lose.
I’m so discouraged. It hurts.
Now that the tigers are not at the temple, when will you make your next trip?
Well, I’m a little concerned that I’d end up spending my retirement behind bars. I’ve been cautioned by my lawyer and the Canadian authorities that, if I go back, I better have a work permit. Even to volunteer my time, I’ve become a bit too high-profile.
You aren’t wanted by Thai authorities, are you?
No. But I’ve been very vocal about the DNP and the inappropriateness of how they’ve dealt with all of this. They haven’t done a proper investigation they haven’t engaged the Royal Thai police who have all this evidence.