A permanent place: MSU alum newest vet at Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park

Erica and Mae Tee (Photo courtesy of Erica Ward).

Erica and Mae Tee (Photo courtesy of Erica Ward).

Big changes are coming for Erica Ward.

The Fowlerville, Mich. native, who recently graduated from Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, is the newest staff veterinarian at Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park (ENP), where she’s volunteered for several years.

She first traveled to the park, located in Thailand’s Chiang Mai province, in 2011 as part of an ecotourism trip. Since then, she’s organized several other trips to the park with groups of preveterinary and veterinary students from around the U.S. But the person she was when she arrived in Thailand for the first time and the person she was when she left were very different. It’s a change she’s also seen reflected in many of the students who also visit the park.

“At that time, I didn’t know about the elephant industry,” Erica said. “I didn’t have a lot of elephant experience. I have seen students go home and their lives are changed. It teaches them to think differently and to think about what goes on behind the scenes and not turn a blind eye to it.”

The park rescues elephants mainly from the tourist and illegal logging industry in Thailand, although they recently have expanded to Cambodia and Burma. Many of these elephants have had extremely difficult lives and suffer from chronic ailments such as foot and eye problems, and skeletal and mental damage from drugs they are given to keep them working.

A new world

But things are changing, Erica said. Since her first trip, several new elephant parks have opened following ENP’s model. Additionally, ENP has expanded, opening two new preserves that will allow rescued elephants to live an essentially wild existence, with health monitoring from the park’s staff.

The park also takes in dogs, many of which were displaced after the tsunami or were confiscated at the border as part of the dog meat trade, and provides free veterinary care to animals from the surrounding villages and towns. The dog sanctuary, along with expanding treatment facilities, are only a couple of the tangible signs of ENP’s growth.

However, it’s the elephants that keep Erica coming back to Thailand, this time permanently. Each one has its own unique personality, from the typical rebellious teenagers to the wizened matriarchs. They also form tight family bonds, such as the one formed between Erica’s favorite elephant, Mae Tee, and her best friend Mae Kham Geao. The two elephants were inseparable, until Mae Kham Geao passed away in November. Mae Tee’s depression was tangible, but she’s now doing better with the help of a mischievous bull elephant named Hope.

“Mae Tee will go hang out with the little teenagers,” Erica said. “It’s cool to see her go from being so depressed to going to hang out with the young crew and throwing mud around. It’s quite a soap opera.”

Working for the future

Much of the park’s supplies come from donations. Often, medical supplies are difficult to find and, when they are available, Pro-Flex_blogare much more expensive in Thailand than in the U.S. On previous trips, Erica and the students have brought supplies with them, including boxes of Neogen’s Pro-Flex veterinary wrap. This time, Erica is taking new diagnostic equipment purchased with funds raised by MSU’s Preveterinary Club along with another 25 boxes of Pro-Flex donated by Neogen.

The Pro-Flex will be used to treat elephants and dogs alike, and help keep wounds clean so they can heal. In the case of Mae Tee, it helps her live a more normal life by keeping her chronically abscessed feet clean of dirt and debris. The 66-year-old elephant lived a tough life of logging before coming to ENP, which caused serious injuries to her feet.

Many of the elephants have similar injuries to those Mae Tee exhibits, along with a host of other health issues. Additionally, the park also is home to several baby elephants that require special care.  As part of her new job, Erica will continue working with students; however, as a staff veterinarian, the elephants will be her first priority, including designing preventative care programs.

For Erica, continuing to grow the park and improve the lives of its residents, great and small, is a dream come true.

“I hope to influence it in a positive way and to really make sure the animals are receiving the highest quality care,” she said. “I also really love working with the students. I just want them to find their passion in what they’re doing and for them to know they can find their passion in anything.”

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 previous articles on Erica and her journey, click here.

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