Animal science student works with elephants in Thailand
By Kim Colavito Markesich
After completing her freshman year as an animal science major, Sara Pallay set off for an adventure at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand’s Mae Taeng Valley, located about an hour north of Chiang Mai. Pallay served as a volunteer for International Student Volunteers, Inc. (ISV).
The Elephant Nature Park’s mission is “to increase awareness about the plight of the endangered Asian elephant, educate locals on the humane treatment of their elephants, and provide sanctuary for rescued elephants.”
Pallay was required to pay her own expenses, but did earn academic credit for the unpaid internship. Her group was composed of students from the United States and one student from Canada. They worked on park maintenance, which included planting and transporting trees, cutting grass for feed, repairing fences, and digging pipe trenches. Pallay was one of three students given the opportunity to shadow a park veterinarian. She was shown how to mix and administer eye drops, search fecal samples for parasitic eggs, and observe medical interventions.
Pallay spent two weeks at the park and two weeks touring the country. The students participated in rock climbing, sea kayaking, caving, snorkeling and backpacking. While Pallay enjoyed the recreational activities, she would have preferred more time working at the park. She says, “Even with all the excitement, those of us who worked at Elephant Nature Park missed the elephants so much that we would have gladly spent the last two weeks in the park.”
The ISV encourages student volunteers to respect local culture. “We learned about Thai history, politics and other aspects of culture such as appropriate dress and greetings,” Pallay says. “ENP provided us with traditional Thai food, and gave us a lesson on the language. They also required us to keep a field journal. I was so immersed in their culture, that even after returning to the U.S., it felt odd not to greet people with a bow and ‘sawas de ka,’ which means hello.”
Pallay hopes to one day become a large animal veterinarian, and she is particularly interested in animal behavior. She would love to visit the park again and continue working with the elephants. “I found my time at the park both amazing and disturbing, to see simultaneously two extremes of the human capacity to do good and evil. All elephants on the park had been crippled emotionally, and some physically, through the vicious beatings of traditional animal training ceremonies, but if ENP’s mission succeeds, they will never have to rescue an abused elephant again.”
“It's impressive that a first year student would embark on such an adventure,” says Robert Milvae, associate professor of animal science. “Sara's experiences at the Elephant Nature Park were indeed life-changing. I would not be surprised if she returns to Thailand someday as a veterinarian in an attempt to alter the struggles of the Asian elephant.”
National Geographic produced a startling documentary profiling the park and founder, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert. The short film gives viewers a sense of the passion felt by Chailert, and her fellow student volunteers. To watch the video visit: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0510/feature5/video.html