Making friends

Megan Ballou of Gilsum spent two weeks this summer at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, where she helped care for elephants and dogs.

Gilsum resident Megan E. Ballou loves animals.

“I grew up with horses, and have always had an attraction to large animals. For some strange reason, I also developed this love for elephants,” she said.

So when the opportunity arose to travel to Thailand this past summer to work with the portly pachyderms, she couldn’t refuse.

Ballou, a junior at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., is studying to be a veterinarian. She’s starting the endeavor by working toward a double major in biology and environmental science with a concentration in pre-veterinary medicine. After she’s done with her undergraduate work, it will be off to graduate school to study veterinary medicine. This will be followed by additional years in internships and a residency.

“I’ve always felt connected more to animals than people, and I want to help them,” Ballou, 20, said this week. “Animals are just so forgiving to you. They don’t speak to you, but you have to figure out what is wrong with them, and when you do, they’re so appreciative.”

Ballou was among a group of about 20 people who spent two and a half weeks in Thailand in June and July to volunteer providing care to elephants and dogs.

The group went on the trip with Loop Abroad, a Boston-based company that offers high school and college students opportunities in the Southeast Asian country to learn about ecology, conservation and veterinary medicine.

Ballou, a 2012 graduate of Monadnock Regional High School in Swanzey, said she found out about the program through an advertisement on Facebook, and after researching it, she contacted the company and decided to apply.

Jane Cassie, program director of Loop Abroad, said students accepted to the program are from across the country and have a range of backgrounds and experiences.

“The biggest thing we look for is if the person wants to be there,” she said. “They also have to be comfortable around animals.”

Students must also write essays and provide lists of references, she said.

While working with the animals, students have vocabulary and skills they need to learn each day, and watch instructional videos they later get quizzed on, she said.

“They have a good time, but they’re really learning a lot of stuff.”

When Ballou’s group arrived in Thailand, they were divided into two smaller groups that were each assigned to a veterinarian. The veterinarians had traveled with them from the United States. Then the groups were sent to either the Elephant Nature Park or the Animal Rescue Kingdom dog shelter, both in northern Thailand. After about a week, they switched locations.

During her first week in Thailand, Ballou was with the group assigned to the Elephant Nature Park, which houses more than 40 elephants rescued from trekking, logging or forced breeding programs.

Each day, Ballou and other members of the group would eat breakfast on the park’s main platform where they’d meet the elephants. Then they’d be assigned a chore, which for some mornings was making elephant food, Ballou said. They cut watermelon, and cleaned fruits and vegetables for the animals; other mornings, they’d clean out their shelters.

In the afternoons, group members took turns caring for elephants and learning their diagnoses.

Of the park’s 47 elephants, only one didn’t have a deformity or limp stemming from an injury. The injuries came from abuse and stepping on old landmines, Ballou said.

The park also has 400 rescued dogs, which members of the group cared for when they weren’t with the elephants.

During the week Ballou’s group was assigned to the Animal Rescue Kingdom, each day was different, she said.

The shelter houses more than 100 rescued dogs who have been beaten, abandoned or abused.

“One day we’d be doing examinations and physicals, and the next day we’d be drawing blood from the dogs,” she said.

As the week progressed, the experiences became more challenging, ending with doing surgeries on cats on the final day.

“It’s definitely a test of how confident you are with yourself. You just had to push through it,” she said.

Ballou said the trip was amazing, and solidified her dream of wanting to become veterinarian.

This dream, she says, was inspired by her mother, Jayne. Her mother was a veterinary technician for 15 years before Ballou was born.

“This is how I want to spend the rest of my life,” Ballou said. “I’ve also got the travel bug now, and want to go everywhere to experience cultures, and help people and animals.”

Meghan Foley can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1436, or mfoley@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @MFoleyKS.