Melanie Duenas

Year of Graduation: 
2017
Melanie Duenas

“After a while they started to feel better, and you could see their relief and trust.”

By Genny Beckman Moriarty

If you ask Melanie Duenas ’17 what it’s like to help neuter an abandoned dog or draw blood, she won’t flinch. But ask her about the bugs, and that’s another story.

In July 2015, Duenas traveled to Thailand, where she volunteered at an elephant nature preserve and also worked closely with veterinarians at a sanctuary for abandoned dogs, both run by Elephant Nature Park in the Chiang Mai province. During the first week, volunteers helped unload supplies and prepare food for the elephants. With a partner, Duenas spent one full day following a single elephant. As part of a dietary study, the two tracked what the elephant ate, when she ate it and when she evacuated. Mae Boon Ma, or “Mother Merit Come,” the elephant Duenas tracked, is blind in her right eye from abuse she suffered at the hands of handlers in the illegal logging trade. Duenas says many of the elephants at the nature park have been rescued from circuses or the logging and tourism industries. Elephant Nature Park provides a safe haven for the rescued elephants and works with members of the tourism trade to find gentler, more humane ways of gaining the elephants’ cooperation.

Duenas spent her second week at Animal Rescue — where more than 2,000 dogs have been rescued since catastrophic flooding in 2011 left thousands of pets without homes. The volunteers’ time was divided between lectures in the mornings and practical, hands-on work in the afternoons. They walked, fed and socialized the dogs and cleaned their crates. On the way from their sleeping barracks to the sanctuary one morning, Duenas and her friends encountered two puppies covered in ticks. They took turns removing the ticks, a process that took several hours. “Even though they were in so much pain,” Duenas recalls, “after a while they started to feel better, and you could see their relief and trust.”

Duenas and other sanctuary volunteers practiced suturing, blood draws and physical exams on makeshift models. They had the opportunity to put their new skills into practice at the end of their stay, assisting veterinarians during surgeries by prepping instruments and helping with incisions. “I wasn’t squeamish,” Duenas recalls, attributing her composure to a biomedical course she took the summer after sixth grade, when she performed a number of dissections. “Sticking needles into a dog for the blood draw made me a little nervous, but I was the only person in the group to get it in and out perfectly.”

An animal lover who “has never had a proper pet,” Duenas says her experience in Thailand strengthened her interest in veterinary medicine. “But it also made me realize I don’t want to do field work,” she says with a laugh, recalling the first night in her bunk, when she slept under mosquito netting that had giant tears covered in duct tape. “I was paranoid of tiny bugs getting in. I can’t take the bugs!”

Duenas, a Jack Kent Cooke scholar, is grateful for the foundation’s help in selecting and financing an experiential travel program each summer. She hopes to give back to her community one day by opening a nonprofit veterinary clinic for low-income pet owners.