‘I am not the same person.’

Photo contributed by Laura Cortazzo

Student spends summer abroad in Thailand studying elephants

Story by Gisselle HernandezAssistant Features Editor

Photo contributed by Laura Cortazzo

Photo contributed by Laura Cortazzo

When junior Laura Cortazzo learned she had been selected to go to Thailand for part of the summer, her initial thought was “Awesome! I get to work with elephants!”

However, throughout the two weeks, her perspective changed as she realized that the animals were there for a reason.

Boston-based program  Loop Abroad chose a group of students who had applied for the trip to go to Chiang Mai, Thailand to volunteer at animal shelters from July 9 to July 30.

The first week, students worked at the Animal Rescue Kingdom dog shelter where dogs who had been abused and beaten were taken in.

In the second week, students treated rescued elephants at the Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand.

“I was there learning about animals,” Cortazzo said. “But I also learned about people and how cruel they can be.”

The veterinary service program allowed the students to work alongside a staff veterinarian.

As a pre-veterinary student at Murray State, treating and working with large mammals helped her broaden her experience in her major.

Cortazzo’s work at the dog rehabilitation center included clinical work, testing for parasites, vaccinations, neuters and general treatment the animals needed which truly made a difference in the animals’ well-being, according to Loop Abroad Media Director Jane Stine.

At the Elephant Nature Park, founded by Songduen “Lek” Chailert, Cortazzo worked closely with the elephants, treating their foot issues that were caused by being caught in traps and their abscesses that resulted from being bound.

The sanctuary is home to more than 40 elephants who have been rescued from trekking, logging and being tortured at tourist attractions.

Seeing elephants with rope burns on their necks from being tied up and ribs clearly visible because of starvation caused Cortazzo to reflect about the way people really mistreat animals.

A popular ritual in Thailand is the Phajaan ceremony, which is known as “crushing” an elephant’s spirit.

The purpose of this process is to tame young elephants so they can become domesticated for tourism purposes by being beaten, taken away from their mothers and deprived of food, according to kimpluscraig.com.

A lot of the elephants at the park where Cortazzo worked had been victims to this ritual.

Some elephants are rescued from entertainment industries, such as circuses.

Elephants performing may be described as entertainment, but it is an entire different story behind closed curtains, said Cortazzo.

She believes seeing dire situations where animals are being mistreated to the point of fatality makes her even more passionate about what she is studying.

“This not only changed my whole thought process of veterinary medicine, it has made me question a lot,” Cortazzo said, “I am not the same person.”

Apart from being emotionally impacted from seeing these animals in pain and hearing each elephant’s background story, Cortazzo enjoyed being immersed in an entirely new culture and experiencing new things every day.

Her fiance, Phillip Michaels, said he was proud that she was willing to go the distance to do what she loved.

“Her motivation is inspiring,” he said. “I’m happy to be at her side.”

This was the first time Cortazzo was abroad for volunteer work, and she said she will definitely revisit since it was a breath-taking experience.

“[On the trip] we were working and it was hard and it was hot and we were doing a lot of stuff,” Cortazzo said.. “But it was amazing.”

The Loop Abroad program offers financial aid to make the trip possible for the greatest number of students.

Interested participants can apply at LoopAbroad.com.