Megan McDowell, a 19-year-old UF animal sciences sophomore, bonds with an elephant she’s been treating in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Each morning, Megan McDowell would wake up, uncover herself from her mosquito net and find her friends for the day: elephants.

McDowell, a UF animal sciences sophomore, traveled to Chiang Mai, Thailand, in July with Loop Abroad, a volunteer program, to gain experience working with animals. She said she cared for exotic and domestic animals, including elephants and dogs.

McDowell, 19, worked in Elephant Nature Park for a week to practice medicine on the elephants who have been poorly treated in Thailand. She said elephants are treasured and glamorized for circuses and the tourism industry, which causes them harm.

“I got to learn about each individual elephant and its story,” she said. “The elephants are made to look happy, but behind the scenes they are being tortured.”

The group of 12 volunteers, including McDowell, worked with five to 10 elephants each day. She and her peers would clean their wounds, which are spread over their feet, ears and neck, and give them medication.

The volunteers developed a relationship with the elephants, she said. As she pet and tended to the elephants, McDowell said she felt as though the animals were comforted.

All students on the trip were on the pre-veterinary track and came from universities across the U.S. McDowell said the students, veterinarians and Thai volunteers who participated all shared one goal — helping animals.

“It was great because all the people I worked with were very passionate and genuine for their love for elephants, which I could relate to,” she said.

Going on the trip opened her up to a new, welcoming culture, McDowell said. She said she gained a new perspective of the world that is more open — something she keeps in mind now.

Even though she wasn’t used to the unrefined conditions she was staying in, McDowell said it taught her patience and how to live without nonessential items.

“It was rustic just because I’m not used to living in cabins and roughing it out with mosquito tents,” she said.

Taylor Paddock, a UF management senior, said McDowell has been committed to helping animals since her freshman year. She said McDowell would wake up before sunrise and drive 35 minutes away to an exotic animal refuge to volunteer there.

“Megan has an incredible passion for animals and for accomplishing her goals,” the 20-year-old said. “She is driven and hard working, and excels past obstacles most college students get deterred by."