A life-changing journey: MSU vet student works with elephants in Thailand

Erica with six-year-old Fa Mai, who was born at the Elephant Nature Park.
Photo courtesy of Erica Ward.

Although her second trip to Thailand is over, it’s only the beginning for Erica Ward.

The Michigan State University vet student recently returned from her second stint at Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park, a haven for elephants and other creatures that need care. Earlier this year, Neogen donated 20 boxes, or 360 rolls, of Pro-Flex to Erica and the group of 40 pre-vet and vet students who traveled to the park to work with and help treat the animals there.

The veterinary bandage wrap was used to treat foot and other wounds on the elephants and also to treat the hundreds of small animals, including close to 200 dogs that were rescued from 2011 floods, that reside at the park.

“Pro-Flex was definitely a huge advantage there,” Erica said, adding that one of the elephants with more severe injuries required nine rolls a day.

The elephants at the park have been rescued, many from the tourist industry and illegal logging industry. Many bear the scars and psychological damage from years of abuse, while also suffering from problems such as skeletal issues, Erica said.

It’s been a life changing experience, one that is shaping where Erica will take her career when she graduates.

“You never know what an experience will lead to and how it can change your life path,” Erica said. “I get such enjoyment out of helping animals and love sharing the joy they bring with others. I am very passionate about what I do and put my whole heart into every project. I will carry the memories with me forever.”

She’s planning to return to the park this winter and possibly to work in Thailand in the future.

In the meantime, there’s still a lot of work to be done. In addition to helping coordinating the next trip to the park through International Student Volunteers (ISV), she also hopes to help expand the ISV vet program to other countries and species, such as treating sea turtles in Costa Rica and cheetahs in South Africa.

Mae Tee enjoying her freedom after her morning foot treatments and sporting her pink Pro-Flex.
Photo courtesy of Erica Ward.

It’s a drive that comes from seeing what a difference can be made. When Erica first volunteered at the park last year, she met her favorite elephant, Mae Tee. The 65-year-old elephant had endured a rough life in the logging industry that had torn away at her feet and joints. As a result, she suffered from painful foot abscesses that made it difficult for her to walk. During the rainy season, she often had to be confined to the clinic to ensure her wounds wouldn’t become caked with mud.

However, with Pro-Flex, Mae Tee was able to roam more freely. Eventually, her wounds began to heal.

“It was truly a gift to see her walk around and enjoy life at the sanctuary with her best friend, Mae Khum Geao, and the protection of the bandages,” Erica said. “Mae Tee is an extremely tolerant patient.”

The group also treated animals in local villages and visited a school to teach English.

The culmination of the journey was a trip to heaven, or rather, Elephant’s Heaven. On her last day at the park, Erica had the chance to take a trek with four elephants into the jungle where the elephants are free to roam all night.

“Many people come to Thailand to ride on the backs of elephants at a trekking camp,” Erica said. “I find it far more inspiring to walk next to them on a journey to freedom. It was a powerful experience and my favorite part of the trip.”

What is the Elephant Nature Park?

The Elephant Nature Park was founded in the 1996 in Thailand’s Chiang Mai province by Sangduen Chailert, better known by those who work with her as Lek. It is staffed by volunteers from around the world who directly work with the elephants daily. Lek has received international honors for her work with the elephants.

For more information on the park, visit www.elephantnaturepark.org.

Read the first part of Erica’s story on Neogen’s blog here.

For more information on Pro-Flex, click here.

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