How TEI Came To Be: Josh’s Story
When I saw Happy the elephant at the Bronx Zoo reach up and touch the white X on her forehead in front of a giant jumbo mirror, demonstrating she was self-aware, I knew I was hooked. With the support of my PhD mentor, I went to Thailand in 2007 to start studying how elephants console and cooperate with each other. At the time, I had no idea I’d set up a non-profit or continue my relationship with the elephants of Thailand for the better part of a decade. Since the beginning of my study of elephants, I have studied their capacity for self-awareness, empathy, cooperation, and problem solving. One day, while working with a group of children in northern Thailand, I realized the fight to protect elephants and other endangered species needed a new focus in classrooms.
We founded Think Elephants in 2011 to help us take a unique perspective on conservation by using the study of elephant behavior to educate children. Current conservation efforts need a renewed focus on changing the way young people, and thus future consumers and leaders, think about the environment and these animals. We are Think Elephants, and we are here to try to affect that change through compromise, fieldwork, and friendship.
-Dr. Joshua Plotnik, 2014
TEI Mission Statement
Think Elephants International strives to promote elephant conservation through scientific research, educational programs, and international collaborations. TEI operates by enlisting the expertise of scientists and educators working in diverse fields who are committed to the conservation of elephants and other animals through (1) scientific research intended to aid in conservation efforts for elephants and other wildlife, (2) pre-college education programs designed to impassion the next generation with critical thinking skills and an understanding of environmental issues, and (3) partnerships with other conservation organizations in order to collaboratively tackle relevant issues. TEI is dedicated to using the elephant as a means of connecting the public to broader conservation topics, and inciting in individuals an admiration for all wildlife.
TEI Key Principles
- Asian elephants are severely endangered, and only through global collaboration and coordination between scientists, educators, politicians, and the public will any substantial effort to save them be successful.
- Research on elephant behavior and cognition provides a unique perspective for tackling conservation issues that must address the often-conflicting needs of humans and animals.
- Effectual long-term conservation practice requires proper education for the next generation. Young people both within and outside of elephant range countries can make a difference if given the opportunity through research and practical conservation participation. Anyone in the global community can have a positive impact.
Meet the Team
Head of Education Programs
Jennifer Pokorny, Ph.D.
Jen oversees all education initiatives, from developing curriculum and supervising and training educators, to evaluating the efficacy of TEI programs. Having taught students from elementary school through the undergraduate level, she is passionate about science education and raising scientific literacy by using interactive techniques, such as problem-based learning, to motivate children to explore and investigate the world around them. Jen received her PhD in Psychology from Emory University in 2009 and has a BA from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research background is quite diverse, spanning areas such as systems neuroscience, animal behavior, developmental cognitive neuroscience, and the contemplative sciences. Jen is currently an Associate Project Scientist at UC Davis.
Head of Marketing and Strategic Partnerships
Matt is currently the head of music marketing for iTunes and Apple Music at Apple in California. Most recently, Matt worked on music partnerships and marketing for the eastern U.S. for Twitter. Matt also had experience as a senior director on the digital marketing team at Sony Music, focusing primarily on the formulation and implementation of fully integrated interactive marketing plans for all of Sony Music’s international priority artists. He worked at Sony Music for over five years, and in that time, rose through the ranks to become one of the company’s youngest marketing directors. He was one of only five applicants to be chosen for Sony Music’s highly selective management development program and the only one of the five applicants to secure an executive level position at the end of the program. He has his BA from the University of Southern California and an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business. Matt oversees all marketing, social media and business development initiatives for TEI.
Head of Elephant Affairs
Thitibon “Cherry” Plotnik, D.V.M.
Cherry first decided she wanted to be an elephant veterinarian while interning at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang, Thailand during her vet school studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Graduating in 2008, she left her hometown of Bangkok to work as the senior veterinarian for the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Chiang Rai. There, she was responsible for the care of more than 30 elephants, but also found time to help TEI with its elephant research projects. Most recently, Cherry was senior veterinarian for the Treasure our Elephants Fund Foundation, which has been working tirelessly to develop and coordinate the implementation of new Thai laws on the regulation of elephant ivory, animal welfare and elephant management. She helps TEI with all matters “elephant” and is interested in helping us to better educate people around the world about elephants.
Coordinator of School Research
Darby Proctor, Ph.D.
Darby joined TEI in 2010 as the Head of Conservation Outreach. She recently completed her PhD in animal behavior at Georgia State University in summer 2012, and has worked extensively with nonhuman primates, including chimpanzees, capuchin monkeys and baboons. Even though her passion is for primates, she is dedicated to the conservation of all vulnerable species as well as educational outreach about the importance of preserving the Earth’s biodiversity. She is also interested in conducting cognitive and behavioral research with elephants using paradigms from the nonhuman primate literature. Darby has an MA and a Certificate of Excellence in College Teaching from Georgia State University, as well as an MSM and BS from the University of Florida.
Coordinator of Special Projects
Christine Webb, Ph.D.
Christine is currently a doctoral student at Columbia University. She completed her undergraduate work at Emory, where she met Josh (and Jen) during her time as a research assistant at the Living Links Center. The following year, she worked as a field assistant in South Africa through the University of Capetown/Baboon Research Unit and a research assistant in Columbia’s Primate Cognition Lab. Upon entering the graduate program, she began to blend her interests in human and non-human primate behavior through the study of conflict resolution. She now studies motivations for and individual differences in reconciliation behavior in both humans and chimpanzees. Specifically, she is interested in what motivates different individuals to resolve conflict and the various strategies/tactics that they use in order to do so. Christine has been integrally involved in developing and piloting the program for the past two years at East Side Middle School. She looks forward to continuing her involvement in many ways—sharing her own research, engaging with other scientists, expanding the educational and philanthropic aspects of the program—but most of all, teaching and learning from some of the smartest middle schoolers in the world!
Social Media Manager
Hunter is currently a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, UK, where she studies the illegal wildlife trade. More specifically, she researches effective and repeatable methods of changing consumer demand for wildlife products in Southeast Asia. Hunter has a Master’s degree in conservation biology from the University of Virginia where she studied the impacts of local hunting on the carnivores of forested Africa, and through this work developed a strong interest in species under severe hunting pressure. Her experiences in science and conservation have ranged from carnivore ecology, to wildlife sanctuaries, environmental law, elephant cognition, and large-scale meta-analyses.
Chloe graduated from Hunter College in May, 2017, obtaining a B.A. in psychology with a minor in sociology. She began her role as a NYC educator in 2017. Chloe is eager to teach young students about the importance of wildlife and how they too can play a vital role in their conservation. Chloe says that being an educator thus far has been amazing; it is refreshing to see students’ minds at work, and the manner in which they express their knowledge and interest in science.
Aliyah is a junior in the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College, City University of New York. She is majoring in biology and public policy with a concentration in wildlife conservation. Aliyah intends to go on to veterinary school to work with exotic animals, ideally elephants. When she’s not studying or working with TEI, Aliyah is a peer health education volunteer and the president of Hunter College’s pre-vet club. She loves reading, playing with her three dogs, and spending time with friends. Aliyah became involved with TEI in 2017 because she loves elephants and believes that education is an integral part of the conservation of these incredible animals.
President and Executive Director
Joshua Plotnik, Ph.D.
Josh founded TEI in 2011 with an initial meeting with a NYC middle school principal, a friend of his since childhood. Currently, Josh is assistant professor of psychology at Hunter College, and teaches in the animal behavior and conservation program. He has published his elephant intelligence research in some of science’s top peer-reviewed journals, and has had his work covered by more than 300 media outlets since 2006. He has an MA and a PhD from Emory University, a BS from Cornell University, and a certificate in elephant appreciation, conferred by one ornery young bull elephant who taught Josh that humility is a requirement when working with one of the world’s most remarkable species. Josh serves as both President of the Board and Executive Director of TEI, and oversees all administration, staff and programs.
Director and Chair
Miranda Pugh, Esq.
Miranda has spent most of her career devoted to raising funds for non-profit organizations. During her five-year tenure with a university in Oklahoma, she successfully solicited more than $66 million in major gifts for numerous college projects, including two new academic facilities. Born and raised in a small Oklahoma town, Miranda graduated from Cornell University in 2004 with a B.S. in Industrial and Labor Relations. Her love of traveling the world was ignited when she spent the first six months of her professional career living and teaching English in Ombalantu, Namibia. She fell in love with the TEI Mission after a 2011 visit to Thailand. Miranda recently completed her final year of law school at The University of Tulsa College of Law where she has been recognized for her academic and leadership excellence.
Director and Treasurer
Carly Anderson, CPA
Carly Anderson is a senior financial services consultant with over 7 years expertise in providing consulting, valuation, accounting, audit and assurance services and risk management for investment managers, advisors, private equity funds, hedge funds, fund of funds and other financial institutions. Carly’s diverse financial and accounting background makes her well-suited as the Treasurer for Think Elephants International. She is experienced in financial statement preparation and analysis, recalculation and analysis of management fees, carried interest/waterfall calculations, capital calls, distributions, partners’ capital balances, financial highlights and valuations. Previously, Ms. Shapiro was a manager at Deloitte & Touche LLP in the investment management and audit division. Currently she is a senior financial services consultant at Constellation Investment Consulting and focuses on working with hedge fund clients as an outsourced CFO, performing valuations, due diligences, analyzing financial transactions relating to dispute resolution matters and audits. She received her B.S. Honors Degree in Accounting with a double minor in Economics and Management Information Systems from the University of Delaware. She is a New York State Certified Public Accountant.
Director and Secretary
Shauna Leven, Esq.
Shauna Leven joined Global Witness as Director of Anti-Corruption Campaigns in January of 2015. Before joining Global Witness, Shauna most recently served as the Executive Director of the René Cassin Foundation, a London-based human rights advocacy and campaigning organization. Prior to that she worked as a Legal Advisor to the Government of Liberia, in Monrovia, Liberia and in litigation at McGuireWoods LLP in New York, USA. Shauna holds a Juris Doctor from Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, Georgia and degrees in International Relations and Economics from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Shauna also serves as a trustee for a number of charities and not-for-profit organizations, including Ebony Horse Club based in London.
Nickolaus Sackett, Esq.
After graduating from Tulane Law School and a decade of practicing tax law and corporate litigation, which included work for clients such as Samsung, AMD, Home Depot, and MassMutual, Nickolaus has turned his focus towards conservation and animal welfare issues. Following a 2014 chance meeting with Josh in Thailand while volunteering at an elephant sanctuary, Nickolaus returned to the U.S. determined to leverage his legal skills for the benefit of animals worldwide. Working with various non-profits since, Nickolaus has met directly with USFWS officials and New York and California state legislators in the course of his advocating efforts for elephants, dogs, and bobcats. In 2016, Nickolaus will complete a Master’s degree in Management and Conservation of Species in Trade from UNIA in Spain.
Prof. Frans de Waal, Ph.D.
Prof. Frans de Waal is the C. H. Candler Professor in Emory University’s Psychology Department, and was both Dr. Pokorny’s and Dr. Plotnik’s dissertation advisor. His many works include Our Inner Ape, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society and The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. Dr. de Waal is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, and directs the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2007. Dr. de Waal has supported Think Elephants International since its inception, and continues to be involved with its research team.