By Jessica Priest
Not many 19-year-olds can say they spent their summer bathing elephants in a river, but Katlyn Foster can.
The Victoria native spent two weeks in Chiang Mai, Thailand, after she was accepted to the Loop Abroad program.
Foster is a pre-veterinarian student at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. A Loop Abroad advertisement on Facebook caught her attention in December.
Then, she started counting her pennies to go, but her grandparents and friends are really what made it possible.
It cost about $5,000 including airfare, she said.
Foster spent the first week with about 10 other students at an animal clinic that has about 400 dogs.
Taught by a veterinarian from the U.S., she assisted in the neutering of two dogs and cats as well as gave shots, cleaned ears and drew blood.
"There was one case where a dog had a liver disease that turned his skin and eyes yellow," Foster said, recalling the trip recently while her German Shepherd, Jenna, romped nearby at Riverside Park. "It kind of made me realize you really can't save them all."
Foster spent the second week at the Elephant Nature Foundation run by a woman named Lek Chailert.
In 2005, Time Magazine named Chailert a Hero of Asia. She is revered in the country because she advocates for the humane treatment of Asian elephants.
Chailert is Foster's hero, too. She said Chailert's message of leading elephants with love rather than force is taking hold.
Elephants in Thailand are often trained to carry people and perform tricks by being poked and prodded with sharp tools.
Chailert uses positive reinforcement, such as treats, instead, Foster said.
"Elephants are really respected in the culture," said Jane Cassie, the Loop Abroad program director, "but for a long time, Thailand's biggest industry has been tourism. They were also used for logging."
Logging became illegal in Thailand in the 1980s.
A painting drawn by an elephant's trunk, while a popular and beautiful momento, is one example of how a love for the creatures can go awry.
"Although there may be one or two times that an elephant's done that, it's more like a circus trick they're trained to do and they're trained to do it most of the time with severe treatment," Cassie said. "Most tourists who go have good intentions when they interact with elephants, but don't know what to look for."
At the Elephant Nature Park, Foster cleaned elephants' abscesses and fed them banana balls, which is medicine crushed up with oats.
She also administered shots to rabbits and water buffalo.
Of the estimated 40 elephants, Foster favored Navann.
Navann, which means "Gold" in Cambodian, recently turned 2 years old and is one of the most spirited gentle giants at the sanctuary nestled in the jungle.
Very few of the elephants at the Elephant Nature Park were born there like Navann.
"His mom was a land mine victim. She did wood trucking in Burma and stepped on one that blew out the pad on her foot," Foster said. "He's as much of a wild elephant as you can get there. When we were cleaning his mother's wounds, he would try to grab the water hose and put it in his mouth or spray us."
Loop Abroad, a private organization based in Boston, started in 2006. It's projecting that next summer it will host 200 students instead of its previous 100.
Its students come from 35 of the 51 states, Cassie said.
Loop Abroad only visits Thailand, but doesn't focus solely on pre-veterinarian or veterinarian students. There's also teaching and photography programs.
With a 60 percent acceptance rate for high school and college students, one must write an essay that shows how they are best suited for the trip as well as submit two professional or academic references and a transcript.
In the 2012-2013 school year, 283,000 U.S. students studied abroad.
Although only 10 percent of U.S. college students study abroad by the time they graduate, the number of those who did so in 2012-2013 has more than triple the number from two decades ago.
The five most popular study abroad destinations are the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, France and China, according to the Institute of International Education.
"I wouldn't say that spending a semester or a year abroad is for everyone. It costs a lot of money. That's why I love how we can have these shorter, two to four week experiences for students. ... We go one place and we stay in one place," Cassie said. "They tackle a lot in two weeks. They go home, and it feels like they've been there for a month."
Foster, meanwhile, didn't earn class credit for the Loop Abroad program, but volunteer hours needed for her degree.
She's always been a bit of a zookeeper, her mother Christie Mongeau said.
Foster got her first pet, a hamster named Flower, in elementary school.
"After the first time it bit her, she wore gloves to clean its cage. She was determined that she was going to keep it," Mongeau said, chuckling.
Now, Foster has four dogs, a cat, eight ferrets and two African aquatic frogs.
"I grew up with animals, but I never thought we'd have this many," Mongeau said.
A sophomore, Foster said the trip helped her decide she definitely wants to earn a veterinarian degree from Texas A&M University.
She could possibly start her own practice or work in another country with a rescue organization, similar to the ones she was introduced to this summer.
"I have never done something so hands on. This really was a once in a lifetime trip," Foster said. "If you have the opportunity, you have to go." Photos.