Guelph Grads on the Go ─ In the Thailand Jungle

Veterinarian Erika Sullivan walks with the elephants

Erika Sullivan

Erika Sullivan examines the teeth of Somboon, a former street-begging elephant she treated for colic.

“The walk to Elephant Haven takes two or three hours,” says Erika Sullivan. “It would be faster except that you are walking with the elephants and have to go at their pace. At first I felt impatient, but then I realized that this slowing down was an important part of the experience.”

Sullivan’s walk with the elephants took her through the Thailand jungle and up the side of a mountain to a tree house where the participants and the elephant guides, called mahouts, would stay overnight. The mahouts told stories about the jungle and the elephants, while the animals wandered off to explore and play together. In the morning, the group walked back down the mountain, again at the elephants’ pace.

The Elephant Haven walk is a project of the Elephant Nature Foundation where Sullivan went to volunteer last November. It’s an alternative to the elephant-trekking that is popular with tourists.

“Why would you ride on an elephant when you can walk with them instead? You get to discover their personalities in a way that you never would if you were riding on their backs while people prodded them with hooks to make them go,” says Sullivan. “It shows that you can have eco-tourism without harming animals.”

In her daily life in Ontario, Sullivan works in a small-animal veterinary practice in Durham. “It’s mostly dogs and cats, but I do have a special interest in the exotic pets like ferrets, rabbits and birds,” she says. When she has the opportunity, though, she likes to volunteer with animals at the opposite end of the scale. In 2008, she worked with gorillas in Africa.

In preparing for the trip to Thailand, Sullivan did some reading on elephants and the role they play in Thai culture. Elephants in Thailand are considered domesticated animals and may live 70 or 80 years, so they are often passed down in families from one generation to the next. In the past, the elephants brought in money for the family by working in the logging industry, but since this was banned by the government, mahouts have sought other ways to find jobs for their elephants.

“What many of the mahouts do is take their elephants into the city and sell little bags of cut-up sugar cane so the tourists can feed the elephants,” Sullivan explains. Others teach the elephants circus tricks or give tourists rides on the elephants.

“All these things deny the elephants their basic needs,” she says. “Elephants are very social creatures and need to be with other elephants. Standing on concrete damages their feet, and a diet of only cut-up sugar cane affects their health. Elephants also have very sensitive skin and need to bathe every day, but that’s not usually possible in these situations, so the elephants get infections and are always under stress.”

To combat this mistreatment, a young Thai woman named Leck Chailert founded the Elephant Nature Foundation in 1995. “She started with a hilltop site and two elephants,” says Sullivan.

The foundation now has several projects, and Sullivan was able to contribute to some of them. About 30 rescued elephants live in a sanctuary near the city of Chiang Mai, where Sullivan’s veterinary skills were of particular value. She helped the sanctuary’s vet staff treat injuries and carry out routine procedures such as de-worming. Another project provides emergency medical care to elephants in more remote areas.

Sullivan spent some time in Surin, where Chailert was asked to establish a second sanctuary in 2009. “The government has set aside 2,000 acres and will be able to support 300 elephants eventually.”

Sullivan says getting to know the elephants really touched her. “They have complex social structures and relationships. They like to explore and discover their environment. It also amazes me how much they tolerate from humans. They could crush us if they wanted to, yet they don’t, even when people are abusing them.”