The Elephant Diaries: Client Conflict

The office phone rings shrilly. An elephant camp two hours away is phoning in for a clinical appointment. The patient: a 1.5 year-old female baby elephant with bouts of diarrhea. While this chief complaint may not seem very urgent for the typical animal, elephant veterinarians treat it as an emergency case. Both the elephant’s young age and clinical sign of diarrhea point to the likelihood of EEHV (Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus).

After loading up our mobile clinic van and driving across precarious terrain, we arrived on site at the elephant camp. We were brought to the sick baby elephant and conducted a physical examination, which produced other findings such as facial edema, depression, and hemorrhagic stool. These signs further affirmed the veterinarian’s diagnostic hunch.

Since elephant calves with EEHV can often die within 48 hours of the disease’s onset, the vet urged the camp owner to bring the elephant to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) to receive critical care. Located in Lampang, TECC is a government-owned hospital that offers free veterinary services to elephants. Given the cultural reverence surrounding the elephant, the Thai government covers these expenses to provide quality medical treatment to the country’s cherished giants.

Surprisingly, the owner and mahout declined. Due to the patient’s young age, the mother would have to be transported along with her baby to the hospital in Lampang. Weaning does not occur until 2.5-3 years of age, and the staff cited the baby’s potential separation anxiety and stress during transportation as reasons against hospital care. Furthermore, they believed the mother may be pregnant and were concerned that transporting her could pose a risk to the fetus. However, the vet remarked that she had not yet started her next ovulation cycle since giving birth to this current baby, making pregnancy unlikely.

Another complication arose from the camp’s “no chain, no hook” policy—tools that, when used appropriately, are actually necessary for training the elephants to position themselves and be compliant for certain medical procedures. For example, the elephants couldn’t respond to a mahout’s command to lift a limb for foot inspection, stay still for an injection, or open their mouths for a dental exam, complicating our ability to deliver basic care. The lack of training would also pose difficulties in getting the baby and mother to willingly walk into the hospital truck destined for Lampang.

While acknowledging these logistical concerns, the vet continued to stress how time-sensitive the patient’s impending treatment was. Despite his insistence on administering anti-viral therapy at TECC, the camp owner again dismissed the option. He said they wanted to wait and monitor the baby longer, promising to call us the next day with any updates.

The camp had only been around for several years and had only experienced one baby elephant death so far. They had also decided to forgo hospital treatment for that patient, and the cause of death—surely enough—was EEHV. I’m not sure how many baby elephants have to become severely ill for the message to truly hit home with the staff. Furthermore, finances are a common and understandable reason why owners may not proceed with certain treatment options for their animals. However, in this situation, the medical bills would be entirely paid for by the government. Additionally, from a business standpoint, the camp risks losing 1 million Thai baht if the baby elephant dies. Although we mentioned these details to the staff, they were still unwilling to seek hospital care.

I began to feel crestfallen, gazing at the baby elephant as the veterinarian and camp staff continued to debate the issue. The escalating clash of viewpoints—though calmly spoken—made me rather anxious as her chances of survival were being heavily discussed behind me. It was heartbreaking knowing that the baby elephant I once saw gleefully slip and slide in the muddy river, munch on sugarcane stalks with reckless abandon, and toot out trumpet noises through her trunk, I may not see again.

While the vet is the ultimate advocate for the animal, we must also respect the owner’s final decision. Before the empty truck headed back for Lampang, the vet gave some multivitamins to the baby that would help stimulate her immune response. He also instructed that she be temporarily separated from visiting tourists, which may help reduce stress levels that would otherwise not aid her recovery from the suspected virus. We thanked the staff for their time and for calling our mobile clinic to examine their baby elephant, then scheduled a follow-up appointment.

Upon our second visit, we were relieved to find that the baby had been situated away from the tourists and actually appeared better—a rare finding given the rapid downfall of most EEHV cases. The results from her second physical exam improved, as she was less depressed, had better appetite, and exhibited increased ambulation and play behavior. The camp staff also expressed a change of heart and started a chain training protocol with the baby to facilitate any medical procedures she may need to undergo in the future.

What began as client conflict eventually crystallized into compromise. I admired the veterinarian’s composure despite the various frustrations. His persistence, client education on EEHV, and alternative remedies—tempered with respect towards the owner’s stance—contributed in turning a challenging client situation into an instance of communication and conflict management skills.

 

Much respect,

E

 

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