January 30, 2023

When you think of summer, you may think of spending time relaxing by pools and beaches. Wittenberg junior Sarah Beagan, however, spent her summer surrounded by elephants at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She participated in a two-part program in which she had the opportunity to get up close and personal with elephants, feeding them and assisting in conservation efforts. The program, which lasted one month, is sponsored by Loop Abroad, a Massachusetts-based organization that establishes summer abroad programs for students who have a special love for animals of all kinds. Beagan said her love for elephants began at an early age.
“I always connected elephants with my father, who would bring elephant statues back from his business trips. I loved elephants from there on,” she said.
The first part of the program consisted of Beagan and many other volunteers helping feed and watch over the elephants, which totaled over 60 in number.
Recalling a particularly adventurous experience, she said, “Since the elephants eat so much corn, we had to clear an entire cornfield with these machetes and pack the corn into a big truck.”
She also experienced Thai culture and spent time with monks at a monastery. She learned many lessons about the importance of respect in Thai culture.
Beagan said, “It’s seen as disrespectful to point your feet at another person when sitting down. Since being barefoot and having dirty feet is the norm, it is seen as pointing your dirt at them.”
Beagan says her favorite part of the program was by far the second half, where she was able to forge closer relationships with the elephants. She was also able to see where much of the abuse comes from firsthand while at a trekking camp.
“It further showed why I wanted to do this. Abuse from circuses, logging activity and trekking account for a lot of the abuse, where they’re treated terribly.”
Beagan said she became closest to a 70-year-old elephant named Noi’nah.
“Whenever I felt stressed from all the activities, I would look forward to feeding her. It would instantly relieve my stress. It’s very peaceful,” she said.
Beagan said it was uncanny how similar elephants were to humans. She said they’re especially similar in their emotions.
“You can see the emotion in their eyes. They glow when they’re happy, and have a somber look when they’ve been abused.”
Beagan said the program was the experience of a lifetime.
“It just reinforced that this is what I want to do with my life,” Beagan said.
She stated that the experience served as excellent training for her future career, in which she hopes to  do conservation work either at a zoo or sanctuary.

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