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CSU veterinary students help orphaned elephants during summer externship in Africa

August 14, 2013
by Coleman Cornelius

Veterinary student Katlin Hornig dreamed of working with elephants. Having grown up with Belgian Brabant draft horses, she has a passion for massive animals and meeting their health-care needs.

CSU veterinary students Katlin Hornig and Nigel Miller helped orphaned elephants during a summer externship in Africa.Hornig was hooked the moment she met Suni, a 2-year-old orphaned elephant who was axed in the spine by poachers. As a result of the attack, during which her mother was killed for ivory, the calf suffers partial paralysis, muscle atrophy and pressure wounds.

Hornig grew up with draft horses and has a passion for large-animal care.“Suni likely has peripheral nerve damage to the sciatic, tibial and saphenous nerves,” explained Hornig, a second-year student in Colorado State University’s Professional Veterinary Medical Program. “She has complete paralysis of her right pelvic limb, with extreme muscle atrophy, and has lost deep pain sensation below her stifle joint.

“To make matters worse, she also fights massive pressure sores, with draining tracts on the side of her foot and on her toe, because of the boot she has to wear to stabilize her leg.”

The CSU vet students taught keepers to provide acupuncture for a little elephant named Suni, who sustained nerve damage in a poacher attack.Elephant Orphanage Project

Suni’s case was the most challenging Hornig encountered this summer as she and fellow veterinary student Nigel Miller completed externships with the Elephant Orphanage Project, near the city of Lusaka, in Zambia, Africa. The project, established by non-governmental organization Game Rangers International, rescues and rehabilitates young elephants whose mothers have been killed by poachers.

The opportunity to assist with veterinary care at the Elephant Orphanage Project transpired after Miller met the nonprofit’s program manager, learned about research needs, and worked for several months to plan the trip. Support came from faculty in the CSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, some of whom have done extensive work in Africa.

'Absolutely amazing'

The Elephant Orphanage Project works to return rehabilitated young elephants to Kafue National Park.“I can truly say that working with these elephants has been absolutely amazing,” Hornig, who grew up in Alamosa, Colo., wrote from Africa. “We are making awesome friendships and having incredible experiences. Life truly is amazing!”

As they worked with Suni, the CSU students completed a neurological exam to locate damaged nerves; improved care of her pressure wounds; taught elephant keepers new healthcare techniques; and even provided acupuncture treatments to help stimulate sensory receptors and promote nerve regeneration. Many of these efforts were application of strategies Miller and Hornig recently learned in a CSU neurobiology course and have practiced in other settings, she said.

Even with her heart-tugging health problems, “Suni is a happy, ambitious, active elephant with an outstanding appetite,” Hornig reported.

Yet that wasn’t the only case for the two students during their veterinary adventure in sub-Saharan Africa.

Behaviorial research

'Life is amazing!' Hornig enthused in a post to her Facebook friends during her veterinary externship in Africa. Miller and Hornig also conducted behavioral research at the nonprofit orphanage, analyzing each youngster for 12 hours to understand how each was progressing toward the ultimate goal of release in Kafue National Park. To return to the wild – or to the wild environment of a national park or game preserve – each calf must gradually spend less time with keepers and more time interacting with other elephants. They must have skills to feed independently on grass, leaves, twigs, fruit and tree bark.

Among other activities, the students also spent 10 days with veterinarians practicing in Zambia.

“We wanted to learn about veterinary medicine in a third world country and to gain experience working with massive animals, like elephants, to increase our knowledge,” said Hornig, who has worked extensively with horses. “We also wanted to assist the orphanage and its amazing cause, and be of help in any way possible to practitioners kind enough to open their doors to us.”

'More resourceful'  

The experience also left Hornig thankful for veterinary resources in the United States: “Having to work with these gentle giants with minimal supplies and resources widened my eyes to how blessed I am handling equine and other patients at home. It has shown me how to be much more resourceful and inventive in my veterinary techniques.”

Miller, who grew up with horses in Elizabeth, Colo., also came home inspired. “The entire trip was great,” he said, as he described the cuddling behavior of an orphaned elephant. “I realized how much I could contribute after only a year of veterinary school. It gave me motivation, knowing that after three more years I could do that much more.”

When her plane landed back in the states, Hornig posted on Facebook: “I think I might have to go back!”