When Abbey Rivers says she’s passionate about helping people and animals, it’s not a casual statement.

The 17-year-old has worked at St. Paul’s Como Zoo since seventh grade, recently returned from a three-week trip to Thailand to volunteer on elephant sanctuaries, and will spend the first half of her senior year at Eden Prairie High School training to be in the National Guard.

“I don’t like to sit around, ever,” Rivers said.

While she’s studied wildlife rescue and conservation through her schoolwork, learning on animal sanctuaries was new for Rivers. The trip to Thailand, through the Global Leadership Adventures program, took Rivers and 17 other students from across the U.S. to four elephant sanctuaries, from a small seven-animal operation to a wild habitat with nearly 200 elephants. Rivers and her cohort helped make seed bombs to replant local rain forests, created nutrient-rich salt licks for elephants to enjoy and cut grass for their meals.

Along the way, Rivers learned about the history of wildlife conservation in Thailand and how various forms of tourism affect elephants. There’s no standard for how visitors are allowed to interact with elephants, she said, and paying more doesn’t necessarily mean getting closer to the animals: The most expensive sanctuaries often have the strictest limits on human-to-elephant contact. At some tourist attractions, the ways that tourists interact with elephants — like taking rides on their backs — can even be painful for the elephants, Rivers said.

“It’s bad for their backs, leaves indents on their bones — it’s bad for every part of them,” she explained.

Rivers also learned about the complicated dynamics of human-elephant interactions in daily life. Many national parks, where elephants live, butt up against farmers’ fields, which are tempting buffets for elephants. Instead of trying to drive them away with aggression, farmers are working on using strategically placed beehives to scare elephants away from their fields without hurting them, Rivers said.

The 21-day trip left plenty of time for Rivers and the other students to learn about Thailand’s culture and history apart from elephants. In fact, she was so immersed in the trip that coming home felt a bit strange for the first few days, she said — the huge houses, drinking water straight from the tap, the amount of things she owns.

“It makes me definitely want to purge,” Rivers said. She’s already packed up some clothes to donate, she added.

For the rest of the summer, Rivers will be working at the Como Zoo, educating visitors about wildlife and conservation. She’s particularly fond of reptiles (like her red-footed tortoise, Raffy) and hopes her work can education people about misunderstood creatures, particularly snakes.

“I’ve seen so many videos of people getting scared and just chopping their heads off,” she said.

Along the way to the National Guard and a career in conservation, Rivers hopes to return to southeast Asia someday. During her trip, she met volunteers from around the world who worked at the sanctuaries for weeks or months at a time. Her plan is to go back and do the same.

“There’s so much more to learn,” she said.

Eden Teller is the multimedia reporter for Eden Prairie News. She's passionate about fostering productive conversations and empowering communities. When she's not reporting, she can be found reading a book, on a hike or tackling home improvement projects.

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