Lincoln, Maine, native Joshuah Farrington, a UMaine master’s student in financial economics, spent winter break 2011 volunteering at the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT), an elephant, monkey and other wildlife refuge with 400 species in Petchaburi. His job for the first visit was to feed, bathe and walk six recovering elephants, and clean their enclosures and harvest bananas for them on a daily basis. He became so concerned about the fate of the abused and rescued animals, and the outlook for others, however, that he returned during spring break 2012 to continue that work, and also to work with the foundation’s media and legal campaign to stop the corruption, profiteering and the black market poaching of elephants. Young elephants are worth up to $40,000 each when sold to the tourist industry.
What was it about elephants that inspired you to work with WFFT and why did you decide to return to Thailand?
I have always liked animals and always had a desire to work or volunteer for an organization that is concerned with animal welfare. When I found WFFT, its ideologies seemed to be a very good fit for my views and I decided to volunteer. Plus, getting to work directly with these mammoth animals is pretty awe-inspiring.
I decided to return to WFFT, not only because the experience was very enjoyable and rewarding, but also due to a series of horrible events that were taking place at WFFT. In early January, five elephants were poached in nearby Petchabrui forest; four were killed and one baby was removed from the wild, presumably to be used to entertain tourists. It was later found that five Department of National Park (DNP) officials had a part in the poaching. WFFT has been very outspoken about the illegal wildlife trade since its inception. However, they were particularly outspoken after finding the level of corruption involved in this poaching. About five weeks after the foundation made public remarks condemning what DNP officials had done, DNP came and illegally confiscated 103 animals from WFFT. Having a connection with WFFT, I felt I had to do something, so I returned over spring break to help with media outreach and aid in the foundation’s legal campaign to return the animals.
How were the animals mistreated?
Currently in Thailand, there is little regard for animal welfare. Many endangered species are still poached for their skin, ivory, sex organs, bile, etc., or are taken from the wild at a very young age to be used in the tourist industry. Elephants, in particular, are often taken from the wild as babies, put through an atrocious process called phajaan. Lead by mahouts (elephant handlers), calves are first taken from their mothers, locked in a crush pen which prevents all movement, and beaten into submission using bull hooks, which are essentially sticks with sharp hooks on the end that leave deep gashes in the elephants’ skin. Over the next seven days, the calf is deprived of all food and water, while being savagely beaten by the mahouts. After this process is complete, the elephants are considered to be “broken” and are then trained for specific duties. These elephants then live their lives in fear of the mahouts and are regularly beaten when they disobey orders. WFFT often rescues older elephants, which are not as useful in the tourist industry, and thus do not receive adequate food, shelter, exercise or medical attention in order to keep them healthy and happy.
How do you think you can help?
As a typical volunteer, I feel I do not have a specifically valuable skill set, but when I came back the second time, I felt my communication, computer and photography skills were very useful in our media and legal campaigns to have the animals safely returned.
What is the most gratifying part of what you’ve been doing?
Knowing that all of the animals at the sanctuary would be deceased if not for WFFT rescuing them and volunteers caring for them on a daily basis.
Do you intend to go back again?
Yes, I have already booked my flight to return in May.
Has this experience informed your future plans?
I have always had a passion for animals, but never an interest in studying them. Spending time at WFFT has made me realize that I want to work for an NGO after I finish my education, though I think I will find a position that will make direct use of my economic degrees.
How long have you been a UMaine student?
What was your undergraduate degree in? When do you anticipate receiving your master’s degree?
My UMaine undergraduate degree was in financial economics in 2006. I started my graduate degree in 2011 and expect to finish in the spring of 2013.
What led you to choose UMaine?
UMaine offers very good value for a great education for a Maine resident. This is the main reason I went to UMaine as an undergraduate. When applying for my master’s program, I remembered how great the professors are in the School of Economics, the great research that we produce, the myriad of research opportunities to both undergraduate and graduate students, and the financial aid package was very enticing.
What, if any, research initiatives were you involved in while at UMaine?
This past summer, I helped with research for an Environmental Economics Encyclopedia article. I am currently coauthoring a paper with (economics professor) Gary Hunt and James Bryant (Advanced Manufacturing Center project manager) on alternative heating systems for Maine. This summer, I will begin an analysis of the Maine dairy industry.
Do you have any favorite professors or classes?
My favorite professor, James Leiby, also taught my favorite class, mathematical economics. The class size was very small — only four students — and was very interactive. Professor Leiby is a great professor who connects with his students, which greatly improves his ability to explain the material.
Were there any classes that almost did you in?
I started taking ECO 514, Microeconomic Theory as an undergraduate. I was working and going to school full time, and realized halfway through the semester that I would not do as well as I would like, so I dropped the class. Once I started my master’s degree I took the class again, and found with adequate time to study, the course was much easier.
Most memorable moment at UMaine?
A presentation I gave on portfolio allocation for SPIFFY when I was the VP of portfolio strategy.
Favorite place on campus?
The economics computer lab in Winslow.
What are your plans after graduation?
After finishing my M.A. I plan to continue my academic studies and pursue my Ph.D. in economics, concentrating in international developmental economics. I would then like to find a position as an economist at an NGO, working in the field.
Advice to other students?
Study abroad, at least once. Many people are reluctant to spend a semester or a year in a foreign country, away from home, where you do not speak the native language, and do not know anyone, but this is what makes studying abroad so great. Everyday is a new adventure; you will meet tons of new people, become a stronger, more independent person, learn to appreciate and respect a new culture, and continue your education. You’ll probably also fall in love with your new host nation.
Image Description: Student with Elephant