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Eldredge's experience with elephants changes her

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ELEPHANT CARE: Menna Eldredge, a Frankfort graduate who is now a junior at University of Findlay in Ohio, spent two weeks inThailand at the Elephant Nature Park with Loop Abroad, a study-abroad group that specializes in veterinary and animal welfare educational experiences.
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FUTURE VET: Makenna Eldredge, a Frankfort graduate who is now a junior at University of Findlay in Ohio, works with a rescued elephant at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand where she spent two weeks on a study-abroad trip.
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ELDREDGE: Makenna Eldredge, a Frankfort graduate who is now a junior at University of Findlay in Ohio, spent two weeks inThailand with Loop Abroad, a study-abroad group that specializes in veterinary and animal welfare educational experiences.

BY SHARON BARDONNER - sbardonner@ftimes.com

Makenna Eldredge feels her two-week trip to Thailand to participate in a hands-on veterinary care experience changed her life. Eldredge, 20, a graduate of Frankfort High School and the daughter of Susan and Joe Ruch, is a pre-vet major in Animal Science at the University of Findlay in Findlay, Ohio. 

She traveled to Thailand with Loop Abroad, an international study organization that specializes in veterinary care and education in accordance with its values of animal welfare and conservation.

Eldredge traveled as a member of a 30-student team helping care for animals and working with rescued elephants at an elephant sanctuary.

“It was funny – a girl who tutored me in chemisty was talking about it, and it sparked my interest,” she said. The same day, Eldredge went online and researched the trip. She then called her mom in Frankfort to share her enthusiasm about the study-abroad possibility. 

“I told her it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, and she was on board right away,” said Eldredge. “She has always instilled in me a love of travel.”

Eldredge knew one other student, who also attends Findlay, who would be on the trip, but all the other participants she met as part of the adventure.

According to Loop Abroad, its Veterinary Service program takes students to Thailand to volunteer alongside veterinarians from the U.S. and Thailand. For one week, Eldredge and her team volunteered at the Elephant Nature Park at Chang Mai in northern Thailand to work hands-on with the giant animals and learn about animal rescue and conservation on a larger scale.

The Elephant Nature Park, founded by Sangdeaun Lek Chailert, is home to more than 60 elephants that have been rescued from trekking, logging or forced breeding programs. Many of them had been abused and suffer from chronic injuries or blindness. At the Elephant Nature Park, they are cared for by volunteers from all over the world.

Lek, as Chailert is known, also founded the Save the Elephant Foundation. Chailet learned to care for animals from her grandfather, a shaman who would sometimes heal villagers’ animals along with the people themselves, according to the foundation’s web site.

At the park, Eldredge helped to feed and care for elephants, as well as learn about their diagnoses alongside an elephant vet, Loop Abroad reported. The Elephant Nature Park is home to more than 1,000 animals, including cats, dogs, water buffalo, horses and cows, and is sustained in huge part by the work of weekly volunteers like Eldredge.

“One day we had the opportunity to follow an elephant vet around, and we were able to give the elephants vitamins and help with their wound care,” she said. “Some have stepped on landmines before coming to the park so their wounds need to be treated every day, and we would clean them out and bandage them. Some have injured trunks, and we would clean those wounds out and take care of them.”

For the other week, Eldredge volunteered at the Animal Rescue Kingdom dog shelter and helped to run Loop Abroad’s Dog Rescue Clinic in Chiang Mai. The shelters are home to more than 200 dogs who have been rescued after being abandoned, beaten or abused. While the dogs can be adopted, any that aren’t will be cared for by the shelters for their entire lives, said Loop Abroad.

While she studied under the veterinarians leading her group, Eldredge and her team made a difference in the lives of these dogs. By providing check-ups and cleanings, diagnosing and treating ear and eye problems, taking and testing blood, administering vaccines, cleaning and treating wounds and helping with sterilization surgeries, the students were able to help support the dogs’ health and well-being.

Before the trip, Eldredge hadn’t considered elephants being abused except for in circuses.

“I knew elephants were abused in the circus but I wasn’t aware of other forms of about, like riding elephants. It’s a tourist attraction, but it’s not natural for the elephants. Also, they’re abused in logging, when they use their trunks to move logs.”

“Each elephant has a mahout, they’re like their trainer, and they (the mahouts) abuse the elephants to get them to move and get them to do things they want them to do,” she said.

There are other ways the animals are mistreated, such as using them to beg.

“They take them to beg in downtown Bangkok in Thailand, but it’s unnatural for them to be in these cities filled with thousands of people.

“I became educated on all the forms of abuse,” Eldredge said.

Despite all the ways the massive animals had been mistreated by humans, they were never aggressive. Eldredge said she never felt frightened around them.

“Regardless of the amount of abuse they had suffered, they were still so gentle and loving with people,” she said.

Eldredge also was inspired and enthralled by all of the animals rescued and the work of Chailert and her team.

“It was fascinating just seeing how she founded the Elephant Nature Park and how many animals she has rescued. She saved water buffalo from going to the slaughterhouse; there was a dog clinic, a cat clinic.”

By following a study abroad model instead of a voluntourism model, Loop explained, it focuses on educating its students to contribute and serve in meaningful ways. It also works with locally run animal welfare organizations so that students contribute to long-term improvement on the ground in the countries they visit. With programs in Thailand, South Africa, and Australia, Loop Abroad is able to support animal welfare and conservation around the world because of its students and their dedication to helping animals in need.

The Lindlay University junior said she began to realize her calling while working at the TPA Park Petting Zoo, helping to care for the lemurs and all of the different birds.

After the trip to Thailand, she was convinced she wanted to work with exotic pets and in animal welfare.

“I was just in awe, and thought, ‘It’s 100 percent what I want to do,” she said.

To be able to treat exotic animals, she explained, she will obtain her veterinary degree, become a practicing veterinarian somewhere and then attend school for another two years to specialize in exotics.

“It was just such an eye-opening experience,” she said. “I’m so motivated to share my observations and my experience with others about animal welfare. My trip definitely changed my life.”

“Our students are some of the most amazing people I have ever met. They are kind, compassionate, dedicated, hard-working individuals who have big goals and want to make a big impact. It’s amazing to see how eager they are to learn and challenge themselves,” said Loop Abroad’s Managing Director Jane Stine. “Over the last nine years, we’ve seen them go on to do some wonderful things.”

Of her trip, Eldredge said, “‘One small drop can create a tidal wave.’ I have been changed because of this trip. I have a strong desire to share my newfound knowledge with the world. I feel as if it is my duty to make a difference now.”