During the summer of 2015, I was selected to participate in Loop Abroad, which is a program that enables students to work with endangered elephants and provide veterinary care for the elephants, Bengal tigers, and abandoned dogs and cats. The program is based in Thailand. At first, my parents and teachers were reluctant to allow me to travel over 9,000 miles away from home for four weeks, but after being selected for such a unique opportunity, they fully supported my dream. I began to receive a lengthy series of immunizations, and my parents worked many extra hours to allow me to have this one-of-a kind experience.
QUARTER-FINALIST 2015 FTF TEEN TRAVEL WRITING SCHOLARSHIP
My father visited with his attorney, who strongly advised against the trip, stating the very different laws, culture, and difficulties I might inadvertently become involved in. Nevertheless, one of my teachers was successful in encouraging them to allow me to participate. My lifelong dream is to become a zoo veterinarian, and this trip would offer me hands on experience with animals that I would likely not be able to work with to this extent in the United States.
Although I communicated with the staff at Loop Abroad and researched the culture, laws, and expectations in Thailand, my reaction to these factors was unexpected. The stark poverty was overwhelming, the cruelty that had occurred to the animals I was treating was horrific, and the demeaning and extremely conservative role expectations for women were difficult to accept. However, I was in their country and had no choice except to adapt or leave.
I began to understand that one person can make a difference even in these circumstances so I came to embrace my work with the animals. One of the first animals I worked with was “Tycoon,” a female elephant, who had stepped on a land mine with her right front foot. Tycoon’s elephant family became extremely upset when we worked on her damaged foot. They would loudly trumpet and rumble until Tycoon was out of the enclosure and treated. Little by little, her wounds became better, and she became accepting of me. This generous and forgiving bond of trust from a creature that had been so brutally treated by other human beings, consumed my heart. I began to understand that the sad poverty of the region was very much at odds with humane and healthy treatment of animals, and that I was wrong to have judged the people harshly. My understanding of people far less fortunate than I am was deepening, and my arrogance and status as the rich American, was changing into humility. With this new-found humility, came my willingness, commitment, and passion to work as hard as I could to change what I could change, and to learn as much as possible.
A mahout is an elephant caretaker. I worked with my assigned Burmese mahout, who spoke only Burmese. Although we did not share a language, that did not keep us from understanding each other. We shared a common goal and love of the elephants. My unfair judgment of these gentle and very hard-working people, living in a sad poverty-driven county setting on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, faded when I realized that they were doing the very best they could with the limited resources they possessed. Even in face of the most difficult circumstances and their own stark poverty, these people were working to save the earth’s precious elephants. I was deeply humbled to be a part of their culture and their mission. It was they who honored me with their grace, not me who honored them with my presence.
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