(Written by Jeannie Wiley Wolf, Staff Writer for The Courier. Story originally published Aug. 15, 2016)
Nicole Muehl got the chance of a lifetime this summer working with elephants and other animals in Thailand.
Muehl, a Findlay High School graduate and a student at the University of Findlay, spent two weeks in Chiang Mai, Thailand, volunteering at both a dog rescue and elephant sanctuary as part of a veterinary service program.
At the elephant sanctuary, she fed, bathed and cared for rescued elephants while learning about their diagnoses alongside an elephant veterinarian. While volunteering at the dog shelter, Muehl helped provide routine veterinary services such as check-ups, taking and testing blood, administering vaccines, cleaning and treating wounds, and assisting with sterilization surgeries.
The program was offered through the Boston-based Loop Abroad, a summer abroad program for high school and college students who love animals.
“I love elephants, so for me to have a chance to go there, I mean, I’ve always wanted to do that. It’s kind of like a bucket list thing for me,” said Muehl, a 21-year-old animal science major with a pre-vet emphasis.
The daughter of Nathan and Stacy Muehl of Findlay, she said she’s wanted to be a veterinarian since she was little. After graduating from high school in 2013, she enrolled at the University of Findlay where she will be a senior this fall. She had heard of the Loop Abroad program and decided this was the time to apply.
“I actually went with a group of pre-vet students. It was like the perfect opportunity to go now and actually learn, too, so I thought, you know, I just can’t pass this up,” she said.
Three Loop Abroad groups left from New York City on May 27. Muehl was part of a group of nine students from across the country and Canada. After more than 20 hours in the air, they landed in Thailand, a country on Southeast Asia’s Indochina peninsula.
For the first week, Muehl’s group volunteered at the Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand.
The park is home to more than 40 Asian elephants that have been rescued from trekking, logging or forced breeding programs. Many of the elephants experienced abuse and chronic injuries before being rescued.
“The elephant park, it was, like, so surreal,” said Muehl. “The first thing we did after changing clothes was hop in the river and bathe the elephants.”
She said four elephants came down to the river and the students tossed buckets of water on them.
“That was fun enough. And then after that it turned into a water fight between us students, so that was a blast to start off with,” said Muehl.
The park thrives on tourists coming and helping at the park, she said, adding that a portion of the students’ tuition helps fund its missions.
“We helped do chores for them. We helped prepare elephant food and unload it from trucks. We helped plant vegetables in the garden and plant grass. We did all sorts of things to help that park run,” said Muehl.
The students had a volunteer coordinator who stayed with them and gave instructions on how to handle the elephants.
“They don’t use any bullhooks or anything like that. It’s all verbal commands, and the elephants respond pretty well to that,” Muehl said. “I never saw any of them really misbehave.”
Muehl said there are more female than male elephants at the park. The animals range in age from just a month or two to over 70 years.
“There were two little ones in the park, like 2 and 3 years old,” said Muehl. “The first day we got there, they were playing in the river together, so that was a lot of fun. We’d just sit there and watch them play. They were knocking each other down. Elephants are so playful.”
She said the elephants eat cornstalks throughout the day and love watermelon and fruit.
“Then a big treat for them, if they’re on medication or stuff, they try to stick it in big rice balls,” she said.
One day the students were assigned to an elephant and had to track its diet. Muehl’s elephant was 74-year-old Saza.
“Our volunteer coordinator said, ‘Hey, you have to know 10 elephants by the time you leave and you have to be able to recognize them’. We’re like, ‘no,’” said Muehl. “It was easy to remember the little ones’ names, and of course my elephant. She hung out with another elephant so I could tell those two apart. But it was hard. Some of them looked so similar.”
The students also helped clean landmine wounds. Muehl said many of the elephants had stepped on the mines while working and now suffer chronic foot injuries.
“It was cool to see how they’d been trained to just stand there and let us do it. They get some watermelon treats to keep them still, but they do a really good job. The one just held her foot in a window and let us clean it off for her,” she said.
Another elephant knelt down and propped up its back foot so it could be cleaned.
“I was shocked at the ones that actually knelt down. It was an awkward position for them. It was amazing they could do that,” she said.
The elephant park is also home to an assortment of dogs, cats, horses and even an orphaned baby water buffalo that Muehl got to feed.
“Her mom ended up getting sick after she had her, and she ended up passing. So the baby relies on us to feed her since her mom’s not around anymore,” said Muehl.
She said some of the dogs roam around with the elephants while others stay in the kennel area.
“Some elephants don’t mind them, but some of them do,” she said. “Some of them will swat them away and the dogs will go away.”
The students made rounds with the vets who care for both the elephants and the smaller animals.
Muehl said the weather in Thailand was hot and humid. There was no air conditioning in the area where they stayed and the showers there were “not ideal.”
“A lot of it was open to the outside so there were more bugs and whatever,” she said. “Even our rooms, the ceiling and wall didn’t exactly come together. So some evenings we would have geckos on our ceiling.”
For the second week, Muehl’s group volunteered at the Animal Rescue Kingdom dog shelter in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The shelter is home to more than 100 dogs that have been rescued after being abandoned, beaten or abused.
Each group was assigned to an American doctor, but they also got to watch a Thai doctor at work.
“It was neat to see what we have that they don’t as far as surgery, and how they kind of make up for that,” she said. “They don’t have the monitoring and things like we do, so a lot of that’s manual, so that was good to learn, too.”
Muehl returned to the United States on June 13. She said the trip was an amazing opportunity.
“The highlight of my trip was getting to meet all those elephants,” she said. “It was bittersweet leaving the last day. I literally just sat there and watched. I didn’t talk to anybody. I was kind of just watching, just taking it all in for the last time because I’m probably not coming back here to get this experience again.”
She said she now feels better prepared for vet school and her eventual career.
“I’m definitely blessed to have had that opportunity,” she said. “I learned a lot and got to experience a new culture and meet new people. You can’t pass that up.”