June 5 2013 12:00 AM

MSU vet school grad Erica Ward goes to Thailand to treat elephants


Nobody had to take Erica Ward aside at her graduation party and whisper the word “elephants” in her ear. She knew what she wanted to do the first time she bandaged a pachyderm’s sore foot and got an appreciative subsonic rumble in response.

A Fowlerville native, Ward graduated from Michigan State University’s veterinary school May 3 and was on a plane to Thailand the following Monday to start her new job at Elephant Nature Park, a refuge for elephants that have survived hard times in the tourist and logging industries.

Ward arrived with four trunks (the man-made kind) of elephant-scaled polyflex bandages from Neogen, the Lansing-based maker of food and animal safety products, and other supplies donated by MSU’s Pre-Vet Club and other local supporters.

Most people are attracted to elephants, whether it’s because of their staggering size, strange physical equipment or their rich emotional and social lives. Unfortunately, the lame, blind or otherwise traumatized elephants at Elephant Nature Park have not benefitted from that attraction.

“You don’t think about what goes on behind the scenes in the tourist industry,” Ward said in late April before leaving for her new job. “You just go and see the animals interacting with people, and it kind of looks OK from the outside.”

In the 1980s, about the same time Thailand’s tourist industry began to boom, widespread logging was reduced sharply. Satellite photos showed the country turning brown from deforestation. An army of elephant lumberjacks, the muscle of Thailand’s logging industry since the early 20th century, was out of work. Many ended up with tourists on their backs, in circuses, or, worst of all, begging in the streets for human “owners.”

A shocking number of elephants — up to 60 percent, Ward said — die during training for the tourist trade. They are prodded, whacked, overworked, confined, isolated and confused. Even worse, when a “worker” dies, unscrupulous owners kidnap an elephant from the wild and transfer the ownership papers, prolonging the chain of abuse. Wild elephants are protected in Thailand, but domestic ones are still treated as property. 

Ward first learned of all this in 2011 as a third-year vet student when she organized a visit to Thailand for MSU pre-vet students through International Student Volunteers. She felt a strong connection with Nae Tee, an old elephant who had served in the tourist and logging industries and suffered from chronic foot abscesses.

“She’s just a gentle and kind elephant,” Ward said. “I know that she’s in a lot of pain.” (A quivering trunk is a tip-off.) “Without even my telling her, if I put my hand in a certain position she’ll lift her foot.”

Elephants like routine. If Ward tries to examine Nae Tee’s feet and it’s not the usual morning time for treatment, she’ll resist. But if the time is right, she’s fine with it.

After bandaging Nae Tee’s feet, Ward sends her off into the vastness of the park. At night, the elephants come back to a shelter, where the bandages come off to let their skin air out.

“We’d rather have them enjoy a good quality of life, go out and roam in the jungle, than be on the cement for their whole life,” Ward said.

Ward patiently builds trust with the elephants, but she has to be sneaky to give them pills for infections or pain. She’ll hide medicine in bananas or other fruit, and even then, some elephants will eat around them or spit them out.

Many of the drugs and treatments Ward uses at the park are adapted from equine medicine, but there’s a lot yet to learn about elephant doctoring. Ward wants to specialize in eye problems, even though elephants are not the best patients. For one thing, you have to climb a ladder to give them an exam. “They pull off dressings and bandages with their trunk and love to rub dirt into their eyes,” she said. 

Since arriving at the park last month, Ward has spent a lot of time traveling to nearby villages with MSU vet school volunteers, building a project to release working elephants straight into the jungle. Many of the elephants at the nature park are too tame or injured to survive in the wild. After a stint in Costa Rica this summer, she will return to the park as a full-time elephant veterinarian, sharing her duties with a Thai and an Indian vet. She’ll miss her family in Fowlerville, her MSU friends and her 23-year-old horse, Cody, but it’s no small reward to ease the burden of life for some very smart and complex animals.

“Animals avoid the veterinarian in some zoos, because they know something unpleasant is about to happen,” she said. “I don’t have that problem there. They know I’m helping them.”