The elephant in the classroom

By Gisselle Hernandez, Features Editor

Taking care of wounded elephants in the hills of Chiang Mai, Thailand, is not how most college students imagine spending their summer. Vasiliki Wilk, senior pre-veterinary major from Rineyville, Kentucky, was able to do just that, and more, when she went with the Boston-based Loop abroad program to Thailand last summer.

Working at the park

Wilk spent three weeks at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand taking care of elephants who were victims of logging and trekking, which is the act of using the elephants to ride on. Although the act was banned in Thailand around the 1900s, neighboring countries like Cambodia still make it their mission to abuse elephants to get meat or ivory from them. Oftentimes, Wilk said the elephants would still wander into the jungle and get caught in traps or get their legs blown off in landmines. Those ones were cared for at least once a day and sometimes more. Wilk worked on the feeding schedule the first week, and other times crossed the river to help other elephants who were in a trekking camp.

Elephants were also trained for street begging, in which people remove the baby elephants from their parents and train them to beg for food in the streets.

She said she was in very close contact with these elephants, and she said they can be dangerous if threatened.

“A lot of people refer to elephants as ‘gentle giants’ and that’s not necessarily true,” Wilk said.

She said each elephant had a mahout, though – a sort of companion or master who is with the elephant every single day. These mahouts would praise them and discipline them when necessary. Elephants become attached to their mahouts and come to trust them after all the abuse they have endured.

Wilk also worked at an animal shelter called Animal Rescue Kingdom. There she put her veterinary skills she learned at Murray State to practice by pulling blood, doing skin scrapes and learning about different parasites. She said in Thailand, the dogs are almost considered as pests and they roam the streets and because of this they are taken up in shelters.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the times these shelters become their forever homes,” she said.  “It’s not like the States where they get adopted, so there were lots of shelter animals and the conditions are not like the States either. They’re very, very different.” 

Culture Immersion

Wilk said one of the most difficult aspects of the program was communication with the natives. Although the schools taught English and some of the veterinarians spoke English well, asking for something as simple as directions became a feat. The religion of the country also played a big part in the way they handled sick animals. Wilk said because the Thais are Buddhists, they do not believe in euthanasia, unlike the U.S.

“But at the same time, they do more drug therapy and more support therapy and a lot of the times, cases that we would euthanize in the States make it out and survive in Thailand so it’s a catch-22,” Wilk said.   

Another thing that had stark contrast with the U.S. was the materials Wilk and the rest of her team had to work with. She said in the States, it is all about sterility and making sure everything is clean and it’s “not like that at all in Thailand.”

“We were not working with that, so you kind of have to be creative and work with what you have,” she said.

She said elephants are very big in Thailand as the people look at them as bringing the country up to where it is now and they were used in war, so the elephants are like “prized possessions.”

The lifestyle in Thailand was also very different to the U.S., Wilk said. She said she wants to go back and definitely enjoys the atmosphere.

“In the States we kind of chase the dollar like go, go, go. It’s stressful here,” she said. “I think we get caught up on the things we have and over there it’s not necessarily about what you have, it’s just kind of going with the flow. You’re living with less, which is actually less stressful.”

She was able to visit one of the tribal schools and Wilk said the children actually want to learn and are passionate about their classes, something she said you might not see in the U.S.

Fun activities

Wilk did not spend the entire time taking care of wounded animals but was also able to enjoy some downtime in the foreign country. After they were done with chores at the park, Wilk said they visit ed the Junior River or visited the night market or even went zip lining in the jungle. Wilk said she enjoyed the night market because of all the talented Thai artists and the cultural food.

Since some of the students were taking the program as credit, they had to do homework during they time they were there and submit projects, hunting for wifi in the city.

Wilk said her most treasured memory was the people she met and connections she made.

“I roomed with three girls and we still talk and share pictures sometimes,” she said. “You never know when those connections might come in handy.

The Impact

Wilk heard about the program on an ad on Facebook, saying it seemed sketchy at first but turned out to be legit. She said after looking into it, she found someone at Murray State had already done the Loop Abroad program.

Her mother, Hariklia Alexatos-Wilk, said Vasiliki approached her with her interest in applying for the program knowing full well she would be hesitant in agreeing to it.

“[My] initial reaction was a combination of trepidation/concern for safety and health as well as a potentially wonderful once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity,” Hariklia said.

After coming back to Murray, Wilk said she had a different outlook at the world like in that realm, and that she definitely would not endorse buying elephant products that deal with logging or trekking.

“I learned a lot but what are you going to do in the States?” she said. “You can’t necessarily do anything; elephants aren’t a big part of our culture.”

But Wilk encourages Americans to help, despite it not being a part of their culture. She thinks the most important is education on the issues.

“Because people are clueless. I was clueless until I went, Wilk said. “But the States has a very good program that will send veterinarians to countries and they can send the vets to Thailand to work in the dog shelter and in the elephant nature park and help.”

Hariklia said the program made a wonderful impact on her daughter and feels she will apply what she has experienced not only in her career, but in her own personal growth as an adult.

Wilk said every one should be able to go out of their comfort zones and study abroad.

“It’s not necessarily to go and change you by any means but just to learn,” she said. “A lot of people get wrapped up in our world and believe that’s the only world there is, but we are like a pinpoint in a map of the whole world.”