PayScale: Please describe your veterinary technician job description.
My job in Thailand was the hardest, most rewarding work of my life. I was an elephant veterinary technician, which means I would help assist the veterinarian with administering medicine, treating wounds, and maintaining the general well-being of the elephants. Everyday I would wake at sunrise to eat breakfast and begin my tasks. After breakfast, I would trek over to the elephant enclosure to work with my elephant, Hong, and her life-long trainer, which is called a mahout. I would ride her to the Ping River to give her a morning bath and have play time, rubbing all the dirt off her and splashing each other for about an hour. After bath time, I would ride her back to her enclosure so she could rest up for her morning show for tourists. During the show the elephants would perform tasks to show the crowd how intelligent and strong they are, such as playing soccer and moving logs. After the performance, people were free to touch the elephants and take pictures with them. I would ride them and have them lift me up with their trunks to encourage hesitant tourists to come take a closer look at the gentle giants. After the crowds left I would feed Hong her corn stalks and make my way over to see the baby of the group, Boom Bim. I would feed him his grain and play with him so he became accustomed to human interaction. After feeding Boom Bim I would treat any animals with injuries. There was one male elephant that had a foot infection after stepping on a river rock, and I would treat his infection twice a day for two weeks with injections, herb soaks, and medicine. I would also treat the elephants with arthritis, saddle sores, and cuts, as well as scanning their microchips once a month.
After a few hours of veterinary work I would go to the local school and teach English classes to students from four to fifteen years old. Most of the students had never seen an American person before and none had been taught English, so they were fascinated and asked me so many questions about America after class. Afterward, I would walk back to town to work with new tourists, who came to see the elephants paint pictures and to ride them around town. My elephant, Hong, was featured in National Geographic for painting herself holding a flower, and still makes reproductions that people can buy. I would lead the tourists on elephants across the Ping River and through the jungle on a two hour journey, finally looping back around town and into the elephant camp again. Once the tourists left, any students that wished to learn more English were welcomed into the elephant camp to play language games, learn more and ask questions. I was so amazed to see their love of learning! After an hour or two, the students would go home and I would eat dinner and retire to my tree house, ready to start my day again.
PayScale: How did you get started as an elephant vet tech?
I have loved animals for as long as I can remember. I've constantly had at least one pet and I spent a large portion of my childhood on a farm, so I have always wanted to help them in some way. When I graduated from high school, I searched the internet for an international trip where I could make a difference before I settled down in college. I stumbled upon a volunteer website called Friends for Asia and found a work opportunity to be with my favorite animals, Asian elephants. All of the elephants were purchased or seized from companies that used them for illegal logging. Many Thai loggers treat the animals absolutely awful, hitting them with sharp spiked tools and beating them with clubs when they don't comply with strenuous logging tasks. The elephants were usually received at the camp with deep infections, bleeding wounds, and spinal arthritis from heavy lifting. When I read those words on the website, I automatically knew that this was what I was meant to do and I started raising funds for my trip. My family was absolutely amazing and they all donated money, which, in combination with my savings, was enough to send me around the world and back on my mission to save the elephants.
PayScale: What did you love most about your vet tech job?
There were so many aspects of my job that I loved! My favorite parts were when I would ride the elephants around the town and local people would be able to see how incredible they were. Even though the elephant camp was in the middle of the village, many locals still did not see the interest and value in elephants, and many times had not interacted with them before. I hoped that locals could see a foreigner's enthusiasm and passion and find it contagious. Another aspect of riding elephants was for the tourists to see how gentle and smart they were. I would usually lead the tourists on a loop that started at the elephant camp and made its way across Ping River, up the mountainside and deep into the steamy jungle, past twenty foot waterfalls, into the town, and back across the Ping River to return to the elephant camp. I would also work with tourists after the elephant performance, showing them how strong and intelligent the elephants were by having them lift me with their trunks and obey commands I gave them while riding them. I remember in particular there was one woman who seemed to be so afraid of the elephants because of their intimidating size - she wouldn't go near them or touch them. I started talking to her and showing her how sweet and loving they are, explaining our training techniques and my job around the camp, and slowly she became more comfortable around them, even giving the elephant a few pats on the side! She left with a huge smile on her face, and hopefully a new appreciation for the Asian elephants. I believe education is the key to stopping the elephant abuse in Thailand, and I hope that people can see me working with them and follow my lead.
PayScale: What were the biggest challenges you faced as an elephant vet tech?
One of my hardest and most rewarding challenges was with a new arrival at the elephant camp. He was used for illegal logging, where the men treat them horribly and beat them regularly. He had ten deep punctures on his forehead from the logger's tools when we received him, all dirty and infected, as well as saddle sores from riding without proper padding. The pain and fear in his eyes was one of the saddest things I've ever seen in my life. This was just one of many cases; all of the animals received had some sort of injury that needed medicine and care. In addition to the physical aspect, many simply did not trust humans anymore. We would have to slowly work with them to gain their trust by feeding them food and staying close to them so they would learn that not all humans would hurt them. It was very difficult to see the awful ways the elephants had been treated and hard to understand why it was okay for so many people to hurt them, especially because in Thailand they are a sacred, revered animal. Another huge challenge was the cultural differences and the language barrier. Although it seems obvious, in the beginning it was a huge hurdle for me. I studied Thai customs and social norms before I left the United States, but there are so many small aspects of everyday life that it couldn't all be covered. I also learned a few basic Thai words, but I assumed some people would know English, which turned out to be a very incorrect expectation. I only worked with one person that knew English fluently, so I studied out of my Thai dictionary devotionally every night, and also learned the value of sign language!
PayScale: What advice would you give to those who want to work as elephant vet techs in Thailand?
The best advice I can give is to make sure this is something you are passionate about. There are so many little hurdles you have to overcome with culture shock, such as learning the new cultural norms, new food, and new language, to name a few. You might also miss home a lot. I overcame that obstacle by getting a Thai cell phone and calling home every few days. Another important tool I used was journaling. Every night before I went to bed I would write a page or so about what I did during the day, what I found difficult, and any struggles I was having. This not only served as a coping mechanism, but it was great to look back now and remember all the things I did! Another task I did to help adjust was to read a bit about Thailand before I went and to learn some of the language. My best recommendation would be to anticipate that culture shock and really read as much as you can about the culture and the people before you leave the United States. Learn about how they see their government leaders, how strangers and friends interact with each other, and gender differences in the society. Some of the things that are perfectly acceptable in the United States are seen as disrespectful in other places around the world. For example, when I was eating breakfast one day I noticed a Thai baht (coin) on the ground. I started playing with it with my foot, moving it around in the dirt. I looked up and saw a Thai elephant trainer looking at me in astonishment. In Thailand, the currency has a picture of the king on it, and their king is highly adored, so to move it around in the dirt was utter disrespect toward him. Another example is pointing with feet. This is normal in the USA, but in Thailand the feet are considered the dirtiest part of the body and it is impolite to point them toward anyone. I wish I had known all of these small aspects of Thai culture before I journeyed there. All in all, my advice is to learn at least the basics of the language and research social norms as much as possible. Remember, there will be a few trying times, so prepare for anything and keep an open mind!
PayScale: Do you recall any crazy moments from your veterinary tech work in Thailand?
One of the craziest parts of working as a veterinary technician in Thailand was transportation. In the United States this is usually a mundane task, and we don't give it a second thought. In Thailand, it is the opposite! Most people do not own cars, instead they have motorbikes, and it is very common to see a father driving with the mother and two or three children of any age on the back. I saw mothers carrying newborn babies with them on bikes, and hardly anyone owns a helmet. There were virtually no speed limits, so people were free to swerve in and out of traffic, and even drive on the dirt shoulder if traffic was too slow for them. One thirty minute motorbike ride was enough to cure me of my desire for a motorcycle forever. I preferred other modes of transportation. My favorite was a tuk-tuk, which is a motorized tricycle with a canopy. The rate is based on how far you have to travel and you can fit as many people in it as you want, making it by far the most fun and cost effective transportation in Thailand. They also had songthews, which are pickup trucks with tall canopies overhead and benches inside. This was one of the cheapest forms of transportation because they could fit a ton of people in one truck and split the cost several ways.
Early one Monday I had to walk to catch a songthew to go to the elephant camp for the week, and I couldn't find it anywhere! The elephant camp is deep in the jungle and about two hours outside of any town, so I needed to find a specific taxi songthew to take me there. Through sign language I talked a shop owner into hailing me a different kind of songthew to take me to a terminal, where I could find a ride on another to the elephant camp. He was confused and took me to the wrong side of town. At this time I called my supervisor, who told me to walk to a bridge to meet him. I walked about three miles in the pouring rain with my backpack containing my week's supplies. He then called me two more times, each time telling me to go to a different location to meet him. Two miles later, I found him and I hopped in the back of the elephant camp truck with all the day workers. We stopped at a beautiful market in the jungle to buy supplies, and I was amazed. It was a little market tucked away in the jungle with no tourists like the rest I had visited. It was a traditional market not aimed at foreigners, but other Thai working class people, with traditional Thai foods and goods. If I had never gotten lost and missed my original ride I would have never seen the amazing market with all the supplies necessary to operate in the elephant camp or made new Thai friends in the songthew!
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