October 22, 2014

THE WILD LIFE | Gabby Gone Wild

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By MICHAEL LEVIN

Gabby Wild is not exactly the type of person I had in mind when I started writing this blog. She is now in her third year of vet school, and splits her time (well, as much as you can do that when you’re a third year vet student) between her studies and charity The Gabby Wild Foundation. The stories I tell are not meant to uncover rising stars in the wildlife conservation arena, or plug individual organizations. But this one is worth telling.

Disney ruined Wild the same way it did pretty much everyone else. Look back at your childhood for a second — remember that moment when you realized Bambi’s mom had been shot? The first time you watched the beginning of Up (it may have been recent, but don’t even try — you cried, too)? Maybe when Mufasa fell from that cliff? The deepest thing most of us got out of them was learning how to deal with crushing loss. Wild used them to start laying a career path.

She watched Mufasa fall and came away defiant. “I’m going to save him,” she pledged, “and I’m going to help Simba if he’s sick.” She started small, transitioning from chasing bunnies around her yard to treating injured pigeons that neighbors would bring around. She eventually moved on to slightly bigger animals at 16, traveling to Thailand to work at an the hospital at an elephant sanctuary.

Her Mufasa moment came wrapped in an adorable little package. The summer before she applied to vet school she met Khun Chai — Prince, in Thai — a baby elephant who had recently been taken in by the sanctuary. Amidst the cooing and coddling that reasonably accompanies something so adorable, Gabby saw something unexpected.

Khun Chai had been taken from his mother to be raised as a pack animal, and arrived at the sanctuary depressed and sick. “I realized he didn’t want anything to do with anyone. So I just stood there and watched him, and I noticed he was noticing me. He saw respect in my behavior, and realized if he wanted my interest he would have to come to me.” So she waited.

Gabby was the first person to feed him from a bottle, gaining his trust and earning the label “stepmother” from the hospital’s employees. She diagnosed him with Rickets, a calcium deficiency that causes bone weakness, and took the first steps to treat him. She took her mothering duties seriously, and as their bond strengthened her nickname became more than an affectionate epithet.

Wild left her prince as the summer drew to a close, a process that was hard for her but unfortunately harder for Khun Chai. The replacement she trained to take over her position couldn’t connect with Khun Chai as effectively; he refused eat, was slipped back into depression, and suffered a slew of injuries. He passed away in early 2013.

When I asked her how she deals with loss in a profession as personal as veterinary medicine, she sat a little straighter. She fired back, “You deal with it because you know you could be the one to save their life. Even if it hurts.” The steel in her voice was unmistakable — raw passion, tempered equally by tragedy and success.

The stories behind people’s Mufasa moments are some of their most compelling. I decided to wander a bit off the path here to highlight a beginning I found particularly spectacular. This blog is meant to highlight amazing people, and Gabby is exactly that. And her last name is Wild — you can’t just let an opportunity like that slip by.

Michael Levin is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at mol8@cornell.edu. The Wild Life appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

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