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Duttenhaver Conservation Field Study Program – 2013

2013 Team Traveled to Thailand to “Think Like An Elephant”

The Duttenhaver Conservation and Field Study Program, generously sponsored by the Duttenhaver Fund, sent a team of students and mentors on an Earthwatch adventure to Thailand during the summer of 2013. The gift was inspired by the donor’s belief in the positive impact of international travel and study, and matched the Zoo’s interest in developing field opportunities for students evaluating a future in biological science.


Jennie Becker with Students Sean den Bok with an Elephant



Angel Bai

For me, the trip to Thailand could not come quickly enough. I packed two weeks in advance, got all my medications and vaccinations long before, and arrived at the airport close to half an hour before the predetermined meeting time on departure day. My excitement for the trip was very evident through my nonstop babbling about how I could hardly wait to take off on this opportunity of a lifetime. My own mother could only tolerate my rambling for so long until she forcibly changed the subject. Even though I noticed that my anticipation irritated others, I could not suppress the feelings of elation as the trip drew closer and closer. When July 15th finally rolled around, I jumped out of bed very early in the morning and anxiously packed and unpacked my suitcase until my mother decided it was not too early to leave for the airport.

Getting to Thailand involved over 24 hours of waiting in airports, bad plane food, airsickness, and sore tailbones, but it was definitely worth it. At the airport, we were greeted by Lisa, one of the six research assistants at the time for Think Elephants International. We later met the rest of the research assistants, and Dr. Plotnik. Surprisingly, all the research assistants were very young, and Dr. Plotnik himself did not seem old at all. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming, and I felt very inspired meeting people who pursued their dreams. During the stay, a few research assistants gave us presentations on studies they had conducted prior to working for Thinking Elephants International. I was impressed by how different each research assistant’s previous subject of study had been before they all came to work with elephants. They all took different paths to get to Thinking Elephants, and encouraged the Earthwatch team to not give up on our dream careers. The research assistants guided us through the experiments and entering data, and even brought our meals from a restaurant down the street. They were a huge part of the trip, and definitely made my time in Thailand a pleasant experience.

One of my biggest worries prior to the expedition was the accommodations. The expedition briefing warned us that air conditioning was not guaranteed in the rooms and that we would have to pay for wifi by the hour. With these warnings in mind, I was extremely grateful when we arrived at the hotel and saw that each room had air conditioning and the front desk gave out passwords for the free wifi. The room was spacious and its one window let in plenty of natural light, which was very refreshing to wake up to. The shower did overflow every time we took a shower and the sink was a bit too shallow for the laundry, which I did daily, but I was still happy that we were in a hotel with modern features. The hotel grounds also had a spa, a restaurant, and a conference room where coffee was offered. We sat at the restaurant for our meals, but our food actually came from another place, further down the street. The food was good, but quickly became tiring. We did have a few chances to eat at other places, which added very welcome variety to our diets. In the mornings, we visited a little market not far from the hotel, and tried some street food. My favorite street food offering by far was the rotee, which was a thin, deep fried sheet of dough slathered in condensed milk. Since the tap water was not suitable for drinking, we drank from large plastic bottles labeled with pink apples. The everyday life in Thailand was agreeable, as we had excellent accommodations and filling meals.

Of course, the most important part of the trip was the elephants. The Anantara Golden Triangle Resort and Spa and the Four Seasons tented camp owned some grounds on which elephants and their mahouts lived, and where we worked. Most of the elephants lived in the Baby Elephant Camp, although most of them were not really babies. A few larger, older elephants stayed in the Big Elephant camps and participated in mahout training. In the mornings, we helped carry out experiments with the elephants. Forty minutes every afternoon were spent at the research site for behavioral observation. Getting to know the elephants and their individual personalities was very eye-opening, as they are such social and curious creatures. Some elephants gave us “kisses,” which were really just the elephants blowing mucus on your face with their trunks. Although these kisses were probably not very sanitary, they were certainly adorable. One of my favorite experiences was the elephants was definitely the mahout training. For the mahout training, we wore oversize denim mahout pants that the mahouts often accompanied with denim jackets. I rode Thangmo, a smaller elephant usually ridden byr children and smaller guests. Since she was younger, she had a lot more hair all over her body, especially her head. Riding an elephant is something like rocking on a boat in the ocean, except boats do not wander off the trail to snack at roadside plants like the elephants did. I have little experience riding animals of any kind, so being on the back of an elephant was particularly thrilling. The awe and wonder inspired by being around the elephants is simply indescribable, as they are so large and intelligent, and can be both gentle and tough.

My experience in Thailand did not just involve fun and relaxation, but also learning and inspiration. I am so grateful to Linda Duttenhaver for making this trip possible for all of us. Her generosity has really touched my heart, and I cannot possibly thank her enough. The research assistants and Dr. Plotnik also deserve my gratitude, as they did so much for us while we were in Thailand, and wanted to keep in touch with us. This Earthwatch expedition was by far the highlight of the summer, and possibly the best trip I have taken in my life so far.

Yuval Dohn

This experience was one that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I never dreamed that I would be involved in such important and ongoing research at such a young age and it has been absolutely remarkable. When I first learned about this year’s Earthwatch expedition through the Duttenhaver Fund and the L.A. Zoo, I couldn’t help but think that it would just be really cool to work with elephants. At the time, it really didn’t matter what work we were doing with them, more just the excitement of “oh my gosh, we’re going to be working with elephants in Thailand.” I never expected it to be quite like it was. The thrill and excitement of the impending trip did not actually sink in until about the night before. Even through all of the doctors appointments, shots and medication, paperwork, and preparation it did not feel real to me. Once I finally realized that this was real and not a dream, I could not stop smiling. That smile lasted through twenty-four full hours of travel, or at least through the beginning leg and then again from the last two hours of travel on.

From the moment we arrived in Chiang Rai and were greeted by Lisa, one of the research assistants, everything seemed to just come together. The drive through the countryside and past field upon field of rice paddies set the tone and helped give our first dose of what exactly Thailand is. When we met the entire team, I was a bit intimidated by everyone’s résumés and accomplishments, but they all opened up to us and welcomed us as a part of the team. The next morning, Dr. Joshua Plotnik and the team began giving us a series of interesting and insightful lectures on elephants. We learned about their basic anatomy and how to read their behavior for our behavioral observation sessions, as well as the ethograms that are used in those sessions. Our first visit to the research site and the big elephant camp was nothing short of awesome (and I mean that in every use of the word.) We were all so shocked to actually be there, we were actually a bit shy. Slowly, the elephants and hearing what research and experiments we would be conducting helped draw us out of our shells. That night, while we prepared ourselves for our first official day of research, I couldn’t help but just feel bubbly with excitement. That morning was more amazing than anything I could have ever dreamt of. I expected us to just record as the RAs (Research Assistants) conducted the experiments, not for us to each do one of the jobs involved in conducting while the RAs stepped back and let us see and do the work for ourselves. Watching an elephant think and solve a problem is unlike anything I have ever seen before. They are able to do so much more than we can provably give them credit for. There are so few studies that have been conducted to test and attempt to gauge elephant intelligence and cognition that what work has been done has barely scraped the surface.

I have learned so much and it was over all too soon. It was so immersing and breathtaking that I honestly never wanted to leave. I could have easily, gladly and wholeheartedly stayed for another month or three or even another year. The work, the people, the lifestyle and whole feel of the culture and the country just felt so right and fitting with the work we were doing and the work that will be done there in the future. Life slows down and there is no hurrying or big city bustle like there is in L.A. The weather was not as unbearable as I expected and it was beautiful, even when it was raining. The food was incredible and delicious, although a bit spicy. I had to learn how to handle it. One of my favorite dishes was the pad thai, but it was very hot and took a lot of effort to eat. My most memorable highlight of the trip was watching the “eureka” moment come to the youngest elephant during one of the experiments. Her eyes lit up and you could see her practically oozing and glowing pride and joy at having figured out how to solve the problem laid before her. I’ve come to realize how much I love watching intelligent animals interact and learn. Each individual personality and their own ways of conveying their thoughts and feelings is part of what made this trip so remarkable. I knew that we would get to meet and work with elephants, I did not know we were going to meet individuals with unique little quirks and their own special relationships with their friends.

I thought up until this point in my life that my line of interests laid solely in marine biology. I knew that I enjoyed animal behavior and found it interesting, but this trip and the chance to see what research actually entails and helped me learn more about where I can possibly go in life. I’ve started to look into other spheres of behavior and psychology so that I can learn even more and hopefully assist in conducting behavioral and cognitive research in the future. I now know that field research is where I belong, not in a lab. Being out there with the animals in their natural environment, it takes your breath away and makes the data you are collecting seem like it is making all the more of a difference. Whether the research is for conservation or simply to learn more about the species and their behaviors, research is the way to go. I am truly thankful for this experience and all that it has given me more than I could have ever asked for or expected from it.

Mary Van Dyke

My time in Thailand flew by in a blur of elephant kisses, mud, and pad thai. Chiang Rai is on the northern tip of Thailand, and the village where we stayed is called the Golden Triangle because from spectacular vantage points along the river we could see the boarders of both Laos and Myanmar. Each day started with a group walk to explore the town, and we became regulars at the bread stand and waffle cart in the local market. My favorite mornings were spent at the Wat Prathat Pukhao, a riverside Buddhist temple built into a hill that provides gorgeous lookout points and contains striking remains from the previous ancient temple. After our walks, the Think Elephants International team would bring out breakfast and we would start our day.

Our team was split into two. Team A started in the field, helping with research, while Team B was in the office, entering data from previous days. The teams would come together for lunch and afterward the office team would stay to help with more research while the field team would head back for exploration and relaxation. The next day the teams would switch roles. My favorite days started in the field with research. The elephants’ vocalizations were incredible—they trumpet, chirp, squeak, grumble, and even roar. This was most noticeable in the mornings when they greeted each other and it always took me by surprise. The research dealt with elephant cognition and their abilities to reason causality and differentiate between textures.

Because it was July, we experienced the first of the monsoon rains. The weather was hot and humid, but made for some great times hiking through mud and running in the rain. Plus it meant that the elephants spent more time with us at the camps or bathing in the hotel pond. The other great part about the rain, aside from the beautiful thunder and lightning storms, was that some elephants liked to put their trunks up to our faces and inhale, giving us big, muddy good morning kisses. That never failed to brighten my day.

Dr. Josh Plotnik, founder and CEO of Think Elephants International and his team of research assistants (RAs) led the tests and organized everything. Not only were they incredibly welcoming, but they were happy to answer questions and let us actively participate in their work. The RAs also shared their history with us through talks on elephant basics as well as cognition in other species, animals and child psychology, and human-elephant conflicts around the world. Each talk was fascinating and added depth to our work.

The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation cares for twenty-four elephants along with their mahouts and families. The elephants range from five to 45 years of age and each has his or her unique personality. Little Pumpui and her adopted sister Namchoke were never seen apart and loved to bathe in the river. We also worked with the camp baby, Am, who was adorable and loved exploring with her trunk. Phuki was one of the stunning males who performed well during research. The mahouts were awesome and, in addition to patiently letting us take thousands of pictures of their elephants, during our training they helped lead us singing “Gangnam Style” and Lady Gaga songs as we trekked through the Thai jungle.

To ensure the elephants enough break time, we spent afternoons exploring the larger province of Chiang Rai. The beautiful Doi Tung gardens were filled with vibrant Thai flowers in every color imaginable, and while we were there we toured the Princess Mother’s villa. The royal family is held in the highest regard in Thailand and through the museum we were able to appreciate their contributions to maintaining Thai culture. We also visited the northernmost point of Thailand in the markets of Chiang Saen and the Wat Tham Pla, a temple built into gorgeous caves in the hills and is famous for the macaque monkeys that frequent the temple in search of food.

From morning temple visits to working with amazing animals, this trip was endlessly inspiring. I now know that I want to study animal behavior in college and go on to earn my master’s degree. I plan on returning to Thailand on a long-term basis after college and would like to thank everyone who made this opportunity possible, especially Mrs. Linda Duttenhaver. It was truly a life-changing experience.

Jonathan Gonzalez

I first heard about the Earthwatch trips on the first day of my Zoo volunteer class. They were discussing the trip of 2011 to visit Kenya and study Zebras. As I heard there were opportunities to travel around the world with little to no student payment, I got really excited to apply. They said students had to be 17 and I knew that it would be a few years before I could apply. After volunteering at the Zoo every Sunday for about two years, I noticed I could apply this year. I looked into the information I needed, and followed the process. I looked forward to find out the result. After my interview I got a call that said I was selected, and as excited as I was, the whole experience felt unreal. It took a while for it to sink in that if I stayed focused, I would be going to Thailand. To most people I probably did not appear enthusiastic about being selected for such a special trip, despite my real feelings of excitement. Soon after, the group of us met the mentors Sean and Jennie. Everyone was quiet in the beginning, but with the ice breakers that were prepared we got to know each other pretty quickly. The last few months of school flew by with graduation and college preparation. July 15 arrived much quicker than I expected. When we arrived at the last airport we changed into our earthwatch shirts to be easily identified. We met one research assistant at the airport and were driven to the location we would be staying.

Thailand was extremely green, and as we drove from the airport to the hotel, I looked outside; I was shocked at the color and scenery, which looked nothing like L.A. The closest thing I could identify with was that the surroundings looked a bit like Mexico. The first major difference was that the people drive on the left side of the road. When we got to the hotel everyone got their keys and checked into the rooms. They were much nicer than I expected. The rooms were simple but were much nicer than camping out, which is closer to what I expected to do. We tried to stay awake until after dinner, so we could sleep through the night, but most of us fell asleep. I was a few minutes late to dinner because I was exhausted. Of course because I took a long nap, I woke up the following morning at 4. After that, I was used to the schedule. At dinner on the first night we met the staff, who were an amazing group of people, from all over the world. There was Dr. Josh Plotnick, who is extremely accomplished, as well as the whole group of research assistants. Each of their stories was inspiring. All of them arrived through different means. Most of them had different degrees, most of which did not directly relate to elephants. After hearing this, it was clear that persistent people end up where they want. All of them love what they do, and would not change any events in their pasts which contributed to their selection in Think Elephants International.

The first full day was an orientation, where the Research Assistants talked to us about what we would be doing. We practiced recording elephant trunk behaviors, and body states, with a video. Parts of the video were very challenging because of the level of activity to record so quickly. In the field it was much easier to record information. The research and the goals of it were introduced that day as well. We had discussions on what the research might prove, and why it is important to continue researching elephants. That day we met one of the elephants, and when we were told we could feed her seeds directly, everyone got excited, because we were not expecting to have free contact with the elephants.

The next few days were alternating research and office work between groups A and B. My group started in the office. We prepared research sheets for the following day. We also took the numbers from a previous day and recorded them onto the computer. In the afternoon, group A had free time, while group B attempted to get vocalizations.

The research that we assisted with was to help prove elephant’s cognitive capabilities, and lead to social behavioral studies. Some similar studies have been done previously by researchers, but there were many flaws in the experiments, such as possible over training of the elephants. There were other variables that most likely affected the result, like the way the information was presented. There were also some experiments that tested the elephants’ sense of touch. The elephants responded to these experiments in very positive ways. I believe elephants are much more capable and intelligent than most people give them credit for. After lunch everyone helped with behavioral observations, which is what we practiced on the orientation day with the video. It was much easier in real life with a partner to help with recording. After all this was over, we were allowed free time until dinner.

All of the free time allowed us to visit the areas around the village. We walked up some stairs and a path to the top of a hill. At the top of this hill there were multiple temples. There were even some ruins from 1302 B.E., which is how they wrote B.C., which were covered in plant life like moss. Seeing the ruins with intricate stonework was amazing. In the U.S. the oldest buildings we have are only a few hundred years old. These ruins were over 3000 years old. This thought of a ruin that dates back so far is almost unimaginable. We would walk around the village to the morning market, where we often ordered some delicious fried bread. At the markets we could get fruit as well. On one of the days we visited the Hall of Opium which was a museum dedicated to the history of Opium in the Golden Triangle area. The last section of the museum was called the Hall of Reflection, where visitors are supposed to reflect on their choices to come in life. We walked through the village almost every day and looked at the shops. On the last few days we got a bit carried away on shopping sprees. Filling our luggage to a point where the bags nearly did not close. The free time allowed us to experience Thai culture first hand, which left an everlasting impression on my view of this region of the world. Some of the things we experienced were known to us already, while others were completely new.

After behavioral observations one day we participated in a mahout training, where we learned commands to ride the elephants. We rode them to the pond where we bathed with them. This was one of the best experiences of the whole trip. I had never expected to interact on this level with the elephants. Before the trip, I had expected to work near elephants, but not as close as we did which was very impressive. At the zoo all of the elephant work is protected contact, Thailand was a polar opposite, with all free contact, except for some new vet training techniques. We were given a day off, where we visited the palace, a garden, and the hall of inspiration. The palace was beautiful, and had amazing architecture. The garden was extremely vibrant, filled with flowers and plants that I had never seen before. The hall of inspiration was a museum about the Royal family of Thailand and how inspiring the king is. We also visited a temple that had many caves around the grounds. At this temple there were many macaques (monkeys) running around interacting with the people.

This trip has broadened my mind on how other cultures differ from ours in many ways. I can use what I’ve learned about the people, environment, and conservation of wildlife in my life back home. The people attempt to live stress free and start each day in a calm state of mind, which I feel I can apply to my life as well. I left the U.S. expecting to come back with new knowledge I could apply to my business. This trip applies, because my business is focused on educating the public on the importance of animals in our environment. As a group we brainstormed possible games for education about elephants. I hadn’t thought of using games as a means of education before my trip. In closing I am extremely appreciative that I was selected for this trip and had the opportunity to experience a different way of life, and a field of work which seemed unattainable.

Sasha Montero

Traveling to a foreign country to participate in ground-breaking research would be something you could only dream of at the age of 18. For me and five other lucky students, however, it was reality. This trip took eight people about 18 hours around the world, not including layovers, to a ten day field study and vacation. This year’s Earthwatch team traveled to Thailand to “Think Like An Elephant”. On behalf of everyone who participated in this, I can say that we all thought like elephants during this expedition.

The team arrived at about 10:30 in the morning at Chiang Rai airport, where we were welcomed by one of the research assistants, Lisa Barrett, and our assigned driver for the trip, Khun Yut. We traveled an hour to our hotel, which was located in The Golden Triangle. The area received its name for the fact that people are able to see Laos and Burma from across the Mekong River. Once we arrived at the Baan Thai Hotel, we settled in and got ready for our first meal in Thailand. During our lunch we were welcomed by other research assistants; Lydia, Elsa, Dan, Elise, Sophie, and Rebecca. Joining them was Joshua Plotnik, founder of Think Elephant International and head of research. I couldn’t believe we were actually meeting Dr. Plotnik. He is someone I’ve been knowledgeable about and inspired by. While getting to know everyone, I realized that each individual was, not only young, but had come from a different career path and joined together for the purpose of research and education. This really intrigued me and made my dreams as an aspiring zoologist seem more realistic. During dinner that night, we continued to get to know each other and got an idea what we would take part in during our stay.

Before any research could begin the research assistants each took turns informing us on background information to think about while conducting the research experiments as well as their purpose. Think Elephant International is all about educating others and bringing people with different backgrounds that share a common goal together. These two ideas make a solid team of people that can really make a difference. We were also taken to The Anantara Golden Triangle Resort and Spa where our research would take place and that’s where most of the elephants live with their mahouts. We got familiar with the grounds and the paths we would be walking every day. This small taste of what our days entailed got me ecstatic. Things were finally starting to feel real.

Research days were what I looked forward to the most. As an aspiring zoologist who wants to participate in field studies around the world, this was what I was there for. Out of the ten days in Thailand, we had six research days. Our days were broken up into different parts, research or office time, behavioral observations, and vocalizations. The Earthwatch team was split into group A and B and each group took turns taking part in the research or office time. Both groups joined together for behavioral observations for 40 minutes and after whichever group had office time had vocalizations in the afternoon. During these tasks we always had the research assistants there to help and guide us. Each day quickly sped by with so much to do during the mornings and early afternoons with entering data conducting experiments, and watching and listening to elephants.

Not only did we do research, but we also had free time. Before arriving, I did not think that the team would have so much free time on our hands to explore the sites and see the town. We usually had 2-3 hour blocks of free time. Some enjoyed the nice cool AC in the hotel rooms and others walked around to see the local shops, temples, or stop at the 7-11. Besides the midday free time, we would walk up early most mornings and explored the morning markets and saw what they offered. All of us came to love the fried dough snacks they would make, we couldn’t get enough! We even had an offsite free day which gave us a look at Thai culture and how this country has grown through their history. The story of the royal family really fascinated me. The team also took part in mahout training which taught us the work of a mahout. I also got to know an elephant named Poonlarb more personally. Each day something new was learned or discovered which made the trip that much more fascinating.

Before this trip, I was expecting to reside in a very rural area with not so good hotels and little modern technology but we were privileged enough to have everything modernized. Research-wise, this experience was more than I could ever ask for. I asked myself questions everyday about the beautiful creatures we worked with. Something Josh said really stuck with me; “Many of the scientists give up and are close-minded because they ask the wrong questions. That’s why we are here to ask questions the elephant friendly way.” I will always keep that in mind as I conduct my own research in the future.

On the last day of the trip, everyone packed their last minute items and headed out of the hotel. We were all saddened by the fact that this trip had quickly come to an end. During this trip we made great friendships and great connections that would last a life time. I personally wanted to stay to continue research and work with all the cute elephants. Of course, we all were due to go home, back to Los Angeles, where stories would be told and shared.

Looking back, couldn’t have asked for better research assistants, scientists, mentors, or student team members to take part in this expedition trip. Each and every one of these people had a special part to contribute to the overall team that made it that more special to be together. This could not have been possible without the support of the Los Angeles Zoo for offering such an amazing experience to students like us. Without Linda Duttenhaver this whole experience couldn’t have been possible either. Her generous heart has touched mine and I cannot express my gratitude enough. Last but not least, I am grateful to Joshua Plotnik and his team for hosting us and letting us contribute to their research. This will be forever in my heart and I cannot wait for what my future has in store.

Darianne Salinas

The opportunity to travel to Thailand to assist scientific researchers was a dream come true. Having to say goodbye was the most difficult thing I had to do. I can honestly say that this Earthwatch trip was an experience of a lifetime for many reasons. It allowed me to make many memorable moments, immerse myself hands-on with the research, interact with different people and the elephants, but most of all, it gave me perspective about career goals, the world, and myself. I am very grateful to have been given this experience.

The travel time to arrive to our destination was not burdensome. It was over twenty-four hours worth of traveling, but my excitement lulled any negative thoughts. I was completely thrilled by the fact that I was embarking on a journey to another country. Three flights is all it took to finally arrive in Chiang Rai. All this time, we were all attempting to further break the ice amongst ourselves. It was definitely worth it. We were welcomed by one of the Research Assistants (R.A), Lisa. She was very friendly. Then, once we arrived at our hotel, The Baan Thai, we were served dinner and introductions began. I was surprised everyone working for Think Elephants International was relatively young. Their ages ranged from early to mid-twenties. Their backgrounds were all different, but they all had similar traits/attitudes. They looked for opportunities and seized them, graduated from college with at least a bachelors and all had a passion for animals. Meeting everyone, including Dr. Plotnik and Mr. Lair, and just living in another country was a very humbling experience.

The research we did as well as the interaction with both the R.As and the elephants definitely gave me insight to what this field of study truly requires. I had taken an animal behavior class in my junior year of high school in which we were taught to make and work with ethograms. These charts allowed us to keep track of behaviors that we wanted to study of a specific animal. We were essentially learning to become researchers by observing the animals at the Los Angeles Zoo. While in Thailand, I realized that the research itself is not as easy as it seems and definitely not boring. Many factors come into play and it is a very serious job. If at first I thought it was slow and not demanding, I was very wrong. Adjusting to the climate, the culture, lack of technological availability, modes of transportation to and from the research site, salary, personal luxuries, being accurate on taking notes, preparing lesson plans, promoting conservation of elephants and habitats, etc. It is a very demanding field. These R.As are inspiring. They are dedicated and in love with what they do. Most did not know what they would embark on next after working for Think Elephants International, but they took it upon themselves to learn more about us individually, as well as, identify with us and show us that it is okay not to have a set plan, but to look for opportunities to better ourselves. They are all very admirable. There were times I felt guilty. I felt we were spoiled on this trip. It felt a little glamorous. We did not have to hike up to the research site because we had a driver that picked us up everyday to take us there. Doing research was a matter of a few hours then we were done. We did not have to stay out in the sun a whole day the same way the researchers did. Our meals were already covered and it felt as if we had a lot of free time. But, nonetheless, everything we experienced both as a group and individually allowed me to see the realities of being a researcher and working out on the field.

Meeting the elephants was incredible. Every one of them has their own unique personality. Our interaction with them was all free contact so long as their mahouts agreed. The mahouts were very friendly. Few spoke English while the majority spoke Thai. To my amazement, those that did speak English, were very much into pop music. The song “Gangnam Style” by PSI was a favorite there. So was Lady Gaga. It was fun interacting and seeing them interact with everyone on our team as well as the elephants. The comparison I can draw to describe the relationship between the mahouts and their elephants is that of a human and a dog. The elephants, though wild, dangerous animals, essentially resembled dogs that followed their owner. They were loyal and took care of their mahouts. It was interesting seeing this. Of the favorites, Little Pumpui and Namchoke, which are two of the elephants located in the Baby Camp of the research site, are examples of the level of protectiveness that elephants can display. The female mahout alongside her husband care for these two elephants. Little Pumpui is very protective of the female mahout. When the elephants bathe in the pond, they enjoy being in the water so much that it becomes difficult to get them out. The female mahout calls out Pumpui’s name several times as she holds onto another person, almost as if she was being physically hurt by this person. This little elephant runs to rescue her by using her trunk to separate her owner from the other person and pulling her away. Then, meeting Cherry, the Elephant veterinarian was amazing. I am interested in working in exotic veterinary care, so the opportunity to meet and listen to their lecture was an eye opener. She demonstrated how to take temperature which was to insert the thermometer in the Elephant’s dung; check heart beat by touching behind their ears; determine height by taking circumference of their foot and multiplying it by two, and etc. We also met two target trainers from Mexico. One of them was also a veterinarian. I learned so much from all of them. Especially about exotic veterinary care. They showed me that there are a wide array of opportunities in this field that I was not aware of. Such as being both a target trainer and a veterinarian at the same time.

This trip was an opportunity to become aware of conservation of animals and habitats. But, it was also a time of reflection on my part. Everyone we were able to work and share conversations with showed me that passion, dedication, patience, and perseverance are key factors to enjoying life. I can finally say that I have traveled outside of the United States and that I was practically a part of the research team. This trip for me was life changing. It was for only ten days, but in this short amount of time I feel I gained perspective on a lot of matters. I am very happy and have immense gratitude for being given the opportunity to travel to Thailand and work hands on. I would like to add that though we were the first teen research group for Think Elephant International, I feel we all worked well and the research team really did involve us and made us feel included; it was as if we were research assistants along side them. It was an unforgettable experience. Their research is intriguing and I am eager to know what their results reveal. Thank you to all the research assistants, Dr. Plotnik, Mr. Lair, Jennie and Sean for making this trip have such a positive impact on me. Heather, thank you for organizing everything. And, Linda Duttenhaver, thank you for giving us this opportunity. I am very grateful to you and to everyone that made this a wonderful experience. Thank You All.

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