26 January 2017

A Day in the Life of an Elephant Veterinarian

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Nissa Mututanont is an elephant veterinarian at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation and has dedicated her life to the well-being and happiness of the animals in her care. Since graduating from the Khon Khaen University of Thailand in May 2015, she has been in close contact with these gentle giants, monitoring their conditions and performing daily check-ups on their health. We asked her a few questions to get a better understanding of her work and her daily life with these amazing creatures.

Why did you choose to work with elephants?

“I think it’s the elephants that choose me! I have always been interested in wildlife & zoo animals, so I looked out for a job posting, but every organization preferred someone with experience. One day, I was browsing through Facebook and saw a post from Dr. Mattana that GTAEF is looking for a full time vet that may or may not have experience. I scheduled an interview both on skype and on-site, and found myself here. What was difficult was remembering the names of the elephants and their mahouts, and of course, working in close contact with elephants. I had never worked so close with elephants before, so it was awkward at first. Luckily, the vet assistant was able to guide me through and I was sent to train under veteran elephant vets at the Thailand Elephant Conservation Center. Thus, I’m getting more confident in working with the elephants and keeping up with current elephant’s medicine as well.”

Day in the Life - Elephant Veterinarian

What is your typical day like at the elephant camp?

“For me, my day starts at 7 AM. As the elephants are arriving for their day’s work, I inspect them for change in behavior, follow up on on-going cases and speak with the mahout if there is any concern about their elephants. If we have a Walking with Giants program booked, then either me or my vet assistant would lead the program. We would take two of our youngest members out for a walk with the guests. We encouraged guests to interact with our elephants and we tell them stories, fun facts, and things they might not know about elephants. Most of our guests want to know more about elephants and their mahouts, the role of a veterinarian, and the Foundation’s work which we answer the best that we can. If it is a quiet day, I will find time to train the elephant using Positive Reinforcement Target Training. It is a useful method where we asked the elephant to touch a ‘target’ (a stick with a ball at one end) for ‘rewards’ (usually sunflower seeds). We want to train our elephants using this method so they can:

  1. Learn to present parts of the body we need to inspect (legs for nail trimming, ears for routine blood tests, etc.)
  2. To present to the mahout that an elephant can be trained without using tools.
  3. Stimulate the elephant to learn new commands.

I may also get calls to look after six buffaloes and one cockatoo as well.”

How would you describe a successful day on the job?

“A successful day would be a day where I will be able to follow up on all elephant treatment. Since the elephants at GTAEF do different activities depending on the day, sometime an elephant that need to be looked after is further from the road, limiting my access to them. Or I will be in a program with guests and the mahout will also be on tight schedule so I can’t go to the elephant either.”

What challenges do you face day to day?

“On a day-to-day basis, it is working together as a team with the elephants, mahouts and vets. The mahouts always pride themselves in their long history of caring for elephants. What they know is based on what their fathers have taught them and what they have picked up as they gain more experience in mahoutship. They hold on to their tradition, so when I try to introduce new things, they are very skeptical and may not want to adopt the new ways. Thus convincing them to accept any ‘modern’ medication is tough.”

A Day in the Life - Elephant Veterinarian

What are the most common ailments that elephants face in captivity? Are these the same as those they face in the wild?

“For elephants in captivity, the most common ailments are wounds on the skin, abdominal pain, and overgrown nails. Elephants at our Foundation are very eager to browse for food in the bamboo forest. They will put their head into the bushes and come out with scratches and cuts. Abdominal pain is common for elephants in captivity because we are providing grass as their main source of feed.  If the grass was cut too old, there will be more fibrous part and that may become a knot in the digestive tract and cause blockage, the elephant will then have difficulty passing out gas and feces, and if it is not detected early or diagnosed quickly then the chance of death is high. The last common ailment is overgrown nails. Elephants usually will need to go on long walks to find food, but once they are in captivity, this is no longer necessary. The substrates that they walk on become very important as a wider range of substrate will help file down the elephant sole and nail.

For wild elephant wounds and cuts will be the most common as well, since all elephants are generally foragers and they will go to great lengths to eat if they see the vegetation and plants they like. There is also greater chance of injury from aggression from other elephants especially males in musth. If wild elephants encounter a human’s crop field they might end up in traps and snares and other devices used by humans to protect their crops.”

What does great elephant care mean to you?

               Great elephant care, to me, would mean that we will be able to take care of elephants in any way possible, from nutrition to ailment to foot care. Basically to be a “know it all” and able to find a solution for everything that might goes wrong in an elephant.”

Day in the Life - Elephant Veterinarian

Can you tell us more about the relationship between mahout and elephant at Anantara?

               “The mahouts and the elephants are like close friends or family members. The mahouts are the caregiver, food provider and also the trainer of the elephants. Thus, the elephants understand that the mahouts are the one that they have to give respect to. The mahouts will ask the elephants certain tasks, and the elephants will learn to follow the mahouts’ commands. Most hours of the day, the mahouts will work closely with his elephant, making sure that the elephant is well behaved and making sure that they are enjoying the activities along with the guests. If the elephant is not happy, then the mahout will not force the elephant out on an activity.”

And what do responsible animal encounters look like to you?

“Since the vet team is in charge of a program called ‘Walking with Giants’, I do get to talk to many guests who do ‘responsible animal encounters’. These guests tend to do their research on elephants, the relationship between mahouts and elephants and the different programs that Elephant camps have to offer. Basically, they are the guests that have done their research well and choose to come to GTAEF to appreciate our work with elephants.”

How is Anantara different from other elephant camps in the area in regards to animal welfare?

               “Animal welfare is still a relatively ‘new’ field of study in Thailand. We still have problems recognizing the care we give to Companion animals (dogs and cats), so to the elephants, it is something that still has to be worked out.

At the GTAEF, we are able to provide the basic five freedoms for the elephants: they are given food, water, shelter, lots of free time to socialize, veterinary care and do not have to live in fear.”

Have you been involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of mistreated elephants? Can you tell us a little more about this?

               “I haven’t been personally involved in any rescue or rehabilitation of mistreated elephants, all of the elephants GTAEF bought off the streets were here before I took up this job. As part of my veterinary’s responsibility, I learn more about elephant care at the Thailand Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang province. It is the largest referral center for elephants in Northern Thailand. At the TECC, I will follow a veteran elephant vet on cases. But I have not been called to a rescue yet, as they need people with a lot of experience.”

Day in the Life - Elephant Veterinarian

Lastly, what is your favourite part of the job?

“Getting up close and personal with the elephants is always my favorite part of the job. Under the surveillance of the mahouts, I usually make a daily examination of the elephants to make sure that they are in good condition. It allows me to learn about their behavior and their personality as well.”

Learn more about the elephants at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation by visiting their website here. If you would like to learn more about Buffalo Tours work with promoting responsible elephant encounters, read about our elephant camp audits. We hope you enjoyed this informative and candid interview with an elephant expert, if you are interested in visiting the foundation on your next Asian adventure contact us or visit our website for more information.

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