A rainbow appears over Elephant Nature Park. Haywood traveled there with the volunteer group Loop Abroad.

A rainbow appears over Elephant Nature Park. Haywood traveled there with the volunteer group Loop Abroad.

Photo provided by Jane Stine

Lamphere grad works with elephants during trip to Thailand

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published August 20, 2018

 Christa Haywood, of Madison Heights, pets one of the rescued elephants at Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand.

Christa Haywood, of Madison Heights, pets one of the rescued elephants at Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand.

Photo provided by Jane Stine

MADISON HEIGHTS — A Madison Heights resident and graduate of Lamphere Schools recently returned from a trip to Thailand, where she volunteered at a park helping rescued elephants. There she learned about conservation efforts while also immersing herself in Thai culture. 

Christa Haywood, a sophomore at Michigan State University majoring in veterinary technology, departed for Chiang Mai in northern Thailand on June 16 and returned July 2. She traveled with the organization Loop Abroad, selected based on her transcript, admissions essay and work references. 

Loop Abroad offers programs for people ages 14-30, as well as financial aid and fundraising assistance options. The group also works with local animal welfare agencies and conservation organizations, not only in Thailand, but also in places such as South Africa, Australia, the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands. 

The program educates participants on how they can make a difference, said spokesperson Jane Stine.

“We follow a study abroad model as opposed to a ‘voluntourism’ model, so that students can really learn about the culture they’re visiting,” Stine said. “Getting to be a small part of a locally run conservation organization is such a valuable experience for students who want to have an impact on their world and learn about the importance of culture as it impacts development.”

In Haywood’s case, this meant volunteering at Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park, home to more than 60 elephants that were rescued from trekking, logging or forced breeding programs. Many of the elephants were abused and now suffer from chronic injuries or blindness. 

“One of the biggest things that I took away … was that every elephant you see used for riding, entertainment and so on go through horrible abuse to perform the way that they do,” Haywood said. “When I returned from Thailand, I had many people ask, ‘So did you ride the elephants?’ And it made me realize that the public has no idea what goes on to get these elephants to behave in that way. These elephants don’t naturally allow people to ride them, so to get this to occur, many elephants are beaten and mentally broken down until they hit the point where they just accept that this is the way life is going to be now, listening to their masters to avoid more torture.”

Haywood learned of Loop Abroad through a Facebook ad. When she wasn’t helping with the elephants or 1,000 other animals at the park — including cats, dogs, water buffalo, horses and cows — she was learning about local culture. This included a meditation lesson with a Buddhist monk, attending a language class, learning how to cook Thai food on an organic farm, and visiting a village school where she assisted staff. Haywood also explored the jungles with her team.

“Although I only got to experience Chiang Mai and its surrounding areas, everyone that I ran into there was so kind and funny, and had a positive radiance to them,” Haywood said. “Thailand also has the most beautiful scenery. On one of our last days, we did a five-hour hike up through mountains of rice fields and dense forest. Every time we would stop to take a break, the surrounding views were so breathtaking that I could have sat up there all day.

“Besides its natural beauty, Thailand also has many temples that were stunning to look at,” Haywood added. “Each temple was unique in its own way, and the details in each were amazing.”

Haywood praised the thoughtfulness of the Loop Abroad travel guides. She also said that her initial apprehension about visiting a foreign country with strangers were laid to rest when she quickly hit it off with the other participants. She said she plans to stay in touch with them.  

“The group I was with was full of funny, outgoing girls who all shared the same passion for animals and exploring as I did,” Haywood said. “At the end of the trip, everyone felt like family, and I have to say that leaving them all on my way home was heartbreaking. 

“In the end … I had made six lifelong friends,” she said. “Without them, the trip would not have been half as fun as it was.” 

To learn more about Loop Abroad, visit www.loopabroad.com.