In May, Trisha Seppey was looking for a different kind of study-abroad experience.
An aspiring veterinarian studying at Santa Fe College, Seppey scoured the Internet for a program that would not only let her experience another country, but also allow her to reach out to animals.
Within two months, Seppey, 23, was on a plane to Thailand with 10 other students, prepared to assist injured elephants and dogs.
"I would definitely do it again if I had the chance," Seppey said. "It was an amazing experience."
With National Elephant Appreciation Day coming up Tuesday, Seppey said she hopes people will take the time to focus on the plight of elephants and other animals.
"It’s a good thing for everyone to be aware of what’s going on in the world," she said.
As part of the program, called Loop Abroad, Seppey, now a Santa Fe junior, spent a week at a dog shelter and a second week at an elephant shelter. She cleaned habitats and fed animals while also helping the facilities’ veterinarians tend to injured animals.
"It was a huge eye-opener," Seppey said, remembering elephants that had lost limbs to land mines hidden on farmland to prevent trespassers.
During the second week, Seppey and the others were split into pairs and assigned an elephant for the day. She was paired with McKayla Peterson, an animal and veterinary sciences junior from the University of Wyoming.
Peterson said they were responsible for monitoring the habits of Mae Thai, a 70-year-old Asian elephant, and taking care of her.
"We got to feed her bananas all day," Peterson, 21, said. "That was her favorite."
Despite being able to bond with the elephants, students were also exposed to the darker sides of elephant life in Thailand.
Peterson said five minutes away from the elephant sanctuary was a camp that offered elephant rides to tourists.
At the end of the trip, when the group took a bus to the airport, she said they saw a man sitting on an elephant’s bloodied head while a couple enjoyed the ride from the backseat.
"That was really horrible to see," she said. "I think people should educate themselves and learn about what really happens behind the scenes."
Bonnie Breitbeil, an adjunct professor at Santa Fe’s teaching zoo, said the brutality Seppey and Peterson witnessed is a reason National Elephant Appreciation Day should serve as a time for reflection.
She will donate to the 96 Elephants campaign, which promotes the banning of the ivory trade, she said.
"Ninety-six African elephants are killed on a daily basis," she said. "It’s a huge epidemic."