The veterinary backup plan
I never thought I'd find myself in Thailand in the middle of the night, rocking a baby elephant to sleep. In the spring of 2006, I originally planned to volunteer at an animal hospital on one of Thailand's many beautiful islands. I imagined myself assisting with dog spays and neuters most days—and spending my days off sipping cold drinks with tiny, colorful umbrellas, my toes sinking into the warm, white sandy beach.
Water for elephantsAfter a quick Internet search, I found Elephant Nature Park (ENP) near the northern city of Chiang Mai. The website listed the elephants' food preparation and bathing amongst some of the volunteer duties. I imagined scrubbing a cheerful elephant with a long deck brush and tossing salad fit for the Waldorf in a wheelbarrow-sized bowl.
Although I did get to help prepare the diets for the 28 rescued elephants that called ENP home, it involved chopping gooey watermelons, pineapples, and bananas on the floor of a bamboo gazebo using a serious-looking machete. And I did help bathe elephants, but that long-handled brush was nowhere to be found. Wading into a fast-flowing river to climb up and sit on top of the happy, wet elephant was the only way to get to those hard-to-reach places with the hand-held scrub brushes.
When I mentioned that I was a veterinary technician, the eyes of the volunteer coordinator lit up. "Oh, you can help with all of the animals," she said. What did she mean, all of the animals? As it turned out, Lek Chailert, the founder of ENP, was a lover of all animals. So the 60-acre compound was home to not only elephants, but a dozen or more dogs and cats and even one young cow that had originally been scheduled for slaughter. Lek also organized a mobile veterinary clinic staffed by volunteers to help the elephants, pets, and livestock owned by families of the Karen hill tribes. With Lek's help, I learned that expressing an abscess on the cheek of an 8,000-pound elephant wasn't much different than doing the same on a house cat—elephants are just a lot bigger.
Elephant in the room
On our return from the Karen village, we learned that a newly orphaned baby elephant needed a nanny for a few days. Lek asked me, my husband, and two other volunteers if we'd be interested in watching Ging Mai, which means Little Tree in Thai. We were excited and honored for the opportunity to spend a few nights bottle-feeding a preschool pachyderm. How hard could it be? The answer: a lot harder than we imagined.
We traveled to a rural farm to care for Ging Mai. A simple, three-walled bamboo hut served as our bedroom for the next few days. Although it seemed primitive at first, we were delighted to wake up to a fresh breeze each morning and the occasional chicken sleeping next to our bed. We were even more delighted that our covered porch housed a mini refrigerator and a television hooked up to a small generator.
It was simple to learn the process of mixing the formula and sterilizing the gallon-sized bottles and nipples using water boiled over an open campfire. But getting the formula into the baby elephant wasn't quite as easy. Ging Mai was an enthusiastic eater, and at times he'd happily lean his 200-plus pounds on me or wiggle his head back and forth while suckling. It was a struggle to keep the nipple from popping out of his mouth as he gulped as quickly as he could.
During the night, Ging Mai would sometimes sadly trumpet from his corral, which was just a few feet from our front porch. At first I wasn't sure what to do. I'd never spent much time with human babies, much less an elephant infant. But then an instinct I didn't know existed kicked in. I soon found myself lying in a bed of hay next to the baby while stroking his wiry-haired side. He would quietly toot and grumble with his tiny trunk until he fell asleep. We quickly learned that like most young mammals, he was feeling lonely and needed comfort.
Even with four of us taking turns and sleeping in shifts to feed, clean, and comfort the Great Dane-sized baby, we were all nearing exhaustion by the third—and last—night of our babysitting gig. As we rode back to town, I could think of nothing I wanted more than a nice, long shower and sleeping in a room with air-conditioning.
My husband and I spent several more weeks travelling throughout Thailand, but our long weekend as elephant babysitters was one of the best weekends we spent. Now I realize that I knew more than I thought I did. The experience I had gathered as a technician for small animals was a greater resource than I realized. I was lucky to meet people who believed in me and offered me the chance to work with chickens, livestock, and elephants for the first time.
Although it wasn't part of my original plan, I realized that I was capable of working with animals beyond dogs and cats. My advice: Go with plan B from the beginning. It may not be the easiest route, but it will be a more interesting trip.
Susan Logan, BS, CVT, splits her time between Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital in Mesa, Ariz., and a local high school, where she teaches veterinary science and animal anatomy and physiology. Please send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org