Aspiring veterinarian travels to Thailand to help elephants in need

By: Andy Kozlowski | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published October 4, 2019

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WEST BLOOMFIELD — Naiel Aslam has been interested in animals since he was just a kid sitting on the bed watching Animal Planet documentaries with his grandfather, a veterinarian.

Now a 20-year-old college student looking to be a veterinarian himself, he spent the summer seeing some of the world’s largest animals up close, at a sanctuary for rescued elephants in Thailand.

Aslam learned about the opportunity through Michigan State University’s Pre-Vet Medical Association, a club for those interested in attending vet school. The two-week summer trip is offered through an organization called Loop Abroad.

Originally, Aslam was just looking to fulfill a requirement for his animal science degree at MSU, which requires a student to participate in either research or an internship, or to study abroad.

“Loop (Abroad) seemed like a fun way to satisfy this, so I decided to go for it,” Aslam said.

What followed ended up being the trip of a lifetime. Traveling with a small group of both aspiring and established veterinarians from around the world, Aslam spent one week at an elephant sanctuary outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. The elephants there had been rescued from trekking, logging or forced breeding programs. Many of them had suffered abuse that had left them with chronic injuries or blindness.

At the sanctuary, volunteers provided around-the-clock care for the gentle giants. Aslam fed them and learned about their diagnoses alongside an elephant veterinarian. More than 1,000 animals live at the sanctuary, and not all of them are elephants — there are cats, dogs, water buffalo, horses and cows that also receive care from the volunteers.

“Asian elephants are such beautiful animals, but their struggles are not nearly as known as they should be. More awareness is always good,” Aslam said. “I absolutely fell in love with the elephant sanctuary and Thailand overall. The founder of the park, Lek Chailert, was one of the most inspiring people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.”

Another week was spent at a dog shelter in Chiang Mai proper, where Aslam and the others helped care for canines that had been abandoned, beaten or abused. They studied under the veterinarians at the shelter, helping to provide checkups and cleanings, diagnosing and treating ear and eye problems, taking and testing blood, administering vaccines, cleaning and treating wounds, and helping with sterilization surgeries.

“Everyone in my group was so friendly and had an amazing attitude. We all felt like we were in this together,” Aslam said. “It did not take long at all to start feeling like one big family.”

All of this work is in line with Loop Abroad’s concept of participants giving back to the communities where they study. Loop Abroad works with locally run animal welfare organizations, helping to support conservation programs in Thailand, South Africa, Australia, the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands. Among the study programs available through Loop Abroad are ones in animal science, marine biology and veterinary care.

The students are ages 14-30, and Loop Abroad offers them financial aid and fundraising help for the programs, which range from two weeks during the summer to a semester abroad, with college credit available. Those interested in applying can visit loopa broad.com.

Admission to the veterinary program is selective, however — Aslam was chosen based on his transcript, admissions essay and professional references. He is now a senior at MSU majoring in animal science, and he is one of more than 1,000 students who have participated in Loop Abroad in its 11 years of programming since its founding in 2009.

Jane Stine, the managing director of Loop Abroad, explained the unique opportunity it presents.

“Loop Abroad students take their field courses in other countries so that they have a chance to learn from local experts. The goal of these courses is not to go abroad and volunteer, but instead to learn from expert veterinarians, marine biologists and other animal scientists, and to learn from the people who care for these animals every day,” Stine said. “We believe — and have seen over the last decade of running courses abroad — that the chance to learn in this environment allows students to gain a broader and deeper understanding of the veterinary medical profession and other animal science professions.”

Aslam said he was unsure at first whether the trip would be right for him.

“There were definitely some concerns I had when I first heard about the trip — mainly the heat,” he said. “Heat is just something I’ve never dealt with well. If I’m outside too long when it’s very hot, I frequently get dizzy or exhausted. During the informational meeting, the trip was described to us as hot, sweaty and muggy. This caused me to hesitate, but I ultimately had to decide that I wasn’t going to allow some discomfort to cost me a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“I was blessed to have everything go extremely smoothly,” he continued. “Although the long travels and weather adjustment were not easy, the Loop staff was incredible throughout, and did everything they could to help us be more comfortable. They were always checking in on us and making sure we were doing well. … They educated us about the culture and customs, and how to stay safe and respectful.”

He said he strongly encourages people to give it a try.

“If you’re able to go on a Loop Abroad trip, you absolutely should,” Aslam said. “It’s not always easy, but it’s truly an incredible adventure.”

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