Kristen A. Estes’s work with animals started early on. She grew up around horses and competed in equestrian events.
“I always knew I wanted to do something with animals,” Ms. Estes of McCallum Drive said. “In high school I decided I wanted to be a vet.”
This summer she took her interest abroad with the Boston-based Loop Abroad’s two-week veterinary service program in northern Thailand, where she split her time working in the Animal Rescue Kingdom dog shelter and the Elephant Nature Park.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Ms. Estes said.
Loop Abroad first began as a study abroad program for high school students in ecology and conservation.
“The goal was to provide a great travel opportunity to high school students,” said Jane Stine, the managing director who co-founded the program with her husband Addam Stine.
The organization partnered with the Elephant Nature Park and began its veterinary programs for high school students and then college students in 2013, based on participants’ interests and feedback.
“There wasn’t any great veterinary opportunity for high school students at that time,” Ms. Stine said.
Loop Abroad also offers programs without a medical focus to learn about elephants at shelter and about the Thai culture and to teach English in local villages.
During the veterinary service programs, students and young adults assist and learn from veterinarians in the field.
The first week Ms. Estes worked at the ARK dog shelter near the city of Chiang Mai.
She, along with 11 other participants in her group, learned how to do physical exams, draw blood, check eyes and ears, test for parasites and even assist in neutering surgeries.
“I liked that we could be hands-on in the surgery,” Ms. Estes said. “Everyone had a role to assist.”
The shelter houses about 100 dogs rescued from the streets or brought in by the public. Common problems that dogs arrive with are wounds, skin infections, and ticks and fleas. Some dogs have been abused and neglected.
“They get there all sorts of ways,” Ms. Estes said.
In an e-mail, Ms. Stine wrote that in Thailand dogs are common pets and generally treated well. Shelters do not euthanize dogs because it goes against Buddhist beliefs, so many dogs live at shelters their whole lives as well as in temples or neighborhoods.
Ms. Estes spent her second week at the Elephant Nature Park, also outside of Chiang Mai, which is home to 40 elephants in five herd groups, where Ms. Estes and her group fed and bathed the elephants and followed veterinarians through the day.
Ms. Estes also saw how the elephants interacted with each other.
“I learned about the herd dynamic,” Ms. Estes said. “Elephants are emotional and the bonds of herd groups are tight.”
She spoke about the baby elephant, Navann, whom staff at the sanctuary also called “cheeky boy” because he could be a troublemaker. He often ran away from his mother and then trumpeted with his trunk, and his mother and other nanny elephants came running, Ms. Estes said.
Adult male elephants are kept separate and are not left to roam as far as the females because they can act aggressively. Each elephant has a “mahout,” or caretaker.
Like the dog shelter, many of the elephants come with injuries and have suffered from abuse.
“There are a lot of really sad stories,” Ms. Estes said.
The Elephant Nature Park website estimates that there are 3,000 to 4,000 Asian elephants left in Thailand and fewer than 30,000 total. Most are described as domestic as there is little undeveloped habitat for wild elephants in Thailand.
Ms. Stine wrote that there is a focus to preserve the elephants left with the idea they may be repopulated in the future when there is space to do so. At the beginning of the century the number of elephants in Thailand was closer to 100,000. The website estimates the number of African elephants at 500,000.
Ms. Estes told the story of Jokia, an elephant who worked with an illegal logging business. Thailand outlawed logging in 1989. Many elephants and their mahouts who worked in the industry were left jobless and found their way to shelters or the entertainment industry in circuses and for elephant riding.
Jokia was forced to work while pregnant and her baby died. At one point Jokia refused to work and swung her trunk at the owner, who in retaliation blinded her.
At the shelter, Jokia is always with another elephant, Mae Perm, who leads her around. All the elephants have a home at the shelter for the rest of their lives.
Ms. Estes spent time away from the shelters with her group experiencing the Thai culture. Before this summer, the farthest she had traveled was Vancouver, Canada, with her field hockey team in high school.
Ms. Stine said that this program is the first travel abroad experience for more than half of the participants. Many receive scholarships and fundraise to cover costs. Two hundred people enrolled over the course of the summer.
Together the group stayed in Chiang Mai, where they visited open air markets and sampled local cuisine.
Ms. Estes said that the Pad Thai noodles were very good, but what sticks in her mind are the mango smoothies sold at the outdoor markets.
She said that the Thai people were very kind and the culture was slower paced.
“Everything is on Thai time,” Ms. Estes said. “It happens when it happens.”
After this experience, Ms. Estes hopes to travel more.
“Now that I have been somewhere, I can’t wait to go somewhere else,” she said.
Ms. Estes, the daughter of James and Jean Estes, recently graduated from Smith College with a major in biology and is applying for veterinary school for fall of 2016. She keeps in touch with friends from the program from all over the United States who are also applying.
Eventually she hopes to work with large animals, such as horses, cows, and with wildlife. Currently she is volunteering at National Marine Life Center in Bourne doing seal rehabilitation.
“Since I have worked with wildlife, I am interested in pursuing that, especially seals and elephants,” Ms. Estes said. “It’s nice to know that you are making a difference.”