SAI YOK, Thailand — Thailand's world-famous "Tiger Temple" was in disarray on Tuesday after hundreds of officials descended on the sanctuary amid allegations monks who ran the outfit were abusing their charges.
The Tiger Temple in Kachanburi province was popular with tourists, who could pay to pat and take photographs with passive big cats.
However, the sanctuary has been dogged by allegations from wildlife and animal-rights organizations that it was breeding tigers for profit and selling animal parts. Buddhist monks and lay workers at the facility west of Bangkok deny the accusations.
"If there's any illegal trading or smuggling, there would have been ... evidence," said Supitpong Pakdijarung, managing director of the Tiger Temple Co. "It has been more than a year and the case hasn't gone anywhere."
In response to the allegations, temple officials earlier this year handed over control of the 137 tigers to allegedly to create a zoo — but those plans went out the window this week.
Authorities descended on the sanctuary on Monday, sedating and caging up the striped felines.
Tourists mingled with dozens of visibly distressed temple volunteers and staffers as the caging and tranquilizing operation got underway.
Tanya Erzinclioglu — who has worked at the temple since 2010 — said she was devastated to see the tigers being taken away, adding that she'd seen no evidence they had been mistreated.
"At the end of the day I know most of it is not true," the 30-year-old told NBC News of the troubling allegations from both the Thai government and activist groups.
Thailand's Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) accused workers at the sanctuary of misusing the animals and abusing them in order to make money.
PETA, an animal-rights organization, said visitors had reported seeing monks beating the felines "when frustrated animals refused to cooperate." The group also criticized how visitors were allowed to have "direct contact" with the wild animals.
"The monks at Tiger Temple encouraged tourists to stroke and pet the tigers—or even sit or lie on them," PETA told NBC News in a statement. "Animal acts ... ensures continued cruelty to animals."
Care for the Wild, another charity, alleged that one former temple volunteer said many of the tigers were made to simply "disappear" when they became hard to handle.
The temple also has "exploited tigers by using them … to collect fees," Care for the Wild said in a statement.
Officials told NBC News the decision was taken to remove the animals from the temple following allegations that some tigers were being sold into a "transnational trafficking crime organization." Those allegations were made by the temple's own vet, officials added.
Pakdijarung, the managing director of the Tiger Temple Co., Ltd. dismissed the vet's allegations as "false" and questioned whether the government was prepared to take on caring for nearly 140 tigers.
"The problem they faced was the budget for food and maintenance," he said. "Has the government prepared for this?"
The DNP told NBC News the process of removing the tigers could take at least a week. As of Tuesday evening, only around 20 of the center's 137 tigers had been sedated, caught and caged.
The department's deputy director general dismissed the suggestion that it was unprepared.
"We have all the cages ready and we will take care of the tigers like other seized animals," Adisorn Noochdumrong, the department's deputy director general, told NBC News.