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The wild animals are lonely for us.
We are lonely for them.
We have become disconnected from each other.
What if we expanded our sense of community to truly include all living beings? Included their perspectives, needs, and gifts? What would be the state of our environment then?
In 2000, I founded Earthfire Institute, a wildlife sanctuary, and lived with rescued wild animals over their lifetime—bears, bison, wolves, cougars and other animals native to the Rocky Mountains. I have witnessed paradigm-shifting events of such beauty that I must share them with you. I hope they will enrich you personally and awaken a new way of seeing our relationship to Life; offer you a sense of the companionship that is available to us and move us to make different conservation decisions where all Life is a priority.
The sheer power and pull of our human brains, constantly busy and firing, often override subtler voices and energies that we need to hear. Wild animals can help us. They invite us into an exchange of life-affirming energies, if we are able to hear. They retain a closer connection to the land than our beloved domestic animals. Not shaped by human selection, they have another perspective to offer us. Wildlife artist Liljefors wrote, “Wild animals arise as the ultimate expression of the land.” And so did we, until we took a turn, for the better and the worse, with the development of our brilliant, complicated, easily-addled brains. The wild ones can ground us in what is truly important and take us out of our self-absorption into a larger frame of reference as we move forward on our human journey.
I would like to share some stories of loving reciprocity between humans and wild animals that I have had the joy of experiencing over many years.
I bring him freshly-cut branches of wild rose. He comes over to greet me. He daintily pulls at the green leaves between the thorns. I stroke his long, graceful neck and his smooth chestnut flanks and admire the impossibly long lashes over huge liquid brown eyes. The soft browns and grays that follow the delicate curves of his face. The lovely shape of his ears. The impossibly slender legs.
He twists his flexible neck to peer back intently into my face and arches it against me in companionship. His whole being is a thing of grace and function. An exquisite creation. A little three-legged deer who can run like the wind. How can there be anything so lovely on this earth?
When they meet him, that young deer just stuns people. There is something about him. In addition to his physical beauty, he is luminous. He seems to glow with an inner light. One after another, people feel called towards him, begin to glow when they meet him, as if an arc of energy has been created between them.
What is it that he emanates? Rescued from the side of a highway with two broken front legs, his umbilical cord still attached, all he has ever known is being with humans. He seems to be offering us an invitation to be his herd and people respond in a silent back- and-forth flow of simple love.
We can’t be reminded enough of how much beauty there is all around us—we who are so often too rushed or numbed or worried to see it and to feel the ease that it brings. In Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, John O’Donohue wrote, “Beauty is made to seem naïve and romantic (but) much of the stress and emptiness that haunts us can be traced back to our lack of attention to beauty. The Beautiful offers us an invitation to order, coherence and unity… we feel most alive in it’s presence for it meets the needs of our soul.”
Now that there are too many deer doesn’t change the loveliness of each individual deer, just as seven billion humans are not ordinary even though there are too many of us. But each of us—you, me, the deer—has a potential for incandescent beauty.
Bluebell and Rosebud were two bison orphans that came from a ranch that raised bison for meat. The ranchers didn’t want the trouble of caring for two babies. We raised them with Josie the Buffalo Goat for milk and companionship. Rosebud bonded intensely to Josie. They would huddle together against the winter snows (or rather, Josie would huddle against Rosebud’s warm, accepting flank). Life went on contentedly for years. Then Josie suddenly died. Rosebud went into a depression. She contracted a kind of pneumonia and within three days she was dead. As she lay dying, Bluebell tried to help her stand, grasping Rosebud’s hump in her teeth, trying to lift her up, bring her back to life. She groomed her still form. Her herd was gone. For a long time, she mourned and we worried that we might lose her too. But something interesting happened…
Bluebell had been a dominant cow, riding herd over Rosebud and Josie, with no interest in people. A few months after Rosebud died, we began to notice that wherever we were, if physically possible, there was Bluebell, too. When we held retreats at the yurt, she would be there at the base of the stairs. We would have to walk around her.
During one retreat we had people with healing hands. As Bluebell appeared, one of the ladies started to send energy towards her. Bluebell walked over and asked for more. Soon, six women were working her over, systematically grooming her and giving her energy healing, plucking her winter’s fur until she was smooth and shiny.
After that, it was no holds barred. Whenever we had guests, Bluebell was present and demanded energy work, leaning into people’s hands until we were afraid the fence would break. One person observed, “All I felt was this heart, this huge heart that wanted to be met.” At eleven years old she had, on her own initiative, transferred her need for a herd to humans.
Runs-Like-the Wind and Bluebell are showing us what it is like to be in a herd, dozens or hundreds of hearts emanating and resonating together. Maybe it can help us be more aware of the flow of love in a human family, hearts speaking to one another. The energy field of our heart is forty times that of our brain.
The HeartMath Institute has measured it several feet out. Perhaps the herds of buffalo and deer are in each other’s heart-field and that is what they transmit to each other, simple and pure. This can change as hormones rage, but underneath, when the biological imperatives simmer down, that is what there is. Simple love that evokes a glowing response.
Teton Totem, a magnificent charismatic grizzly bear, could no longer walk. We tried western medicine, but after x-rays and cortisone shots, it had nothing more to offer. The vet advised us to euthanize him. I called Penelope Smith, an intuitive healer and interspecies telepathic communicator. She had met Teton and greatly admired him, calling him ‘a bear’s bear.’ I asked if she had any suggestions for us. “Let me see what I can do,” she said. The next day she called and asked if there were any changes. There were. He had dragged himself over to the bear pool, dropped in his right hind leg, and tried to move it back and forth in the water.
Penelope continued to work with him telepathically for several weeks. Teton’s improvement was slow but steady, and in two months, just before hibernation, he was walking.
When Teton emerged from hibernation the next spring, he was still walking and something in him had changed. There was a gentleness in his eyes as he looked at humans. Six years later, he is still walking and he still has that look in his eyes. People who visit him are mesmerized, unable to tear themselves away.
Retreat participant Deb Matlock wrote:
“One of the most beautiful things in life is when we are touched at our very core, when our preconceived notions are shifted dramatically in an instant. Thanks to Teton, I experienced such a moment.
Intellectually, I understood that each animal is an individual deserving of life and dignity. However, I was completely unprepared for my interaction with Teton. As I approached, he looked at me. His gaze was penetrating and powerful. That didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was the magnitude of kindness and gentleness I saw in his eyes. Never before have I seen such a depth of kindness and gentleness in a being. I was utterly moved to tears and found myself feeling a connection with him that transcended human and bear. I reached a depth of spirit that allowed me to glimpse the sameness we share with each other.
This experience changed and touched me in a way I did not know I could be touched. I left Earthfire with a deeper resolve to do the work of connection that is critical to healing our world.”
Cucumber was a tiny wolf, a fierce little thing uninterested in making any connection she could with humans. One day I felt a pull to look in her direction. She was standing still, looking directly at me, trembling. We rushed her to Summer, our vet, who ran a battery of tests and found that Cucumber had a raging infection and was close to collapse.
Summer said there was no hope without exploratory surgery, but Cucumber was too weak to survive such an invasive procedure. We decided that if she was going to die anyway, we had to try to give her every chance. I sat by the open door of the operating room, hoping that on some level she would know she wasn’t alone, that she mattered. And I prayed.
After an hour of searching, Summer found the problem: a section of intestine had twisted and died. As she operated, Cucumber’s blood pressure plummeted and she nearly died on the table, but they pumped fluids into her and she came back.
After several days in intensive care, Cucumber came home. It was the dead of winter and bitter cold. We brought her into our cabin with its heated floors and nursed her around the clock. It was touch and go. But she lived. And she changed.
She discovered she liked living in a cabin. She discovered she liked all the attention and care—a lot. She transformed from an aloof and fearful wolf into pure sweetness—responsive and loving. She protested loudly when we tried to put her back outside. We compromised and let her come in for breakfast and affection. Somehow, during her near-death experience and all the care we gave her, we had pierced a veil. A profound, beautiful bond developed between us that lasted a lifetime.
Bringing her in for breakfast, she would race to the cabin door, blast it open, and rush past us to her food. While she wolfed it down, Jean and I would begin our meditation, starting with a Tibetan singing bowl. To our amazement, the first time she heard the bowl she came over and circled us three times then peacefully laid down beside us. When we rang the bowl to end the meditation, she got up and circled us again, this time with great energy, interrupting her enthusiastic circles to nuzzle deeply into Jean’s armpit and my lap.
She did this every day without fail, until she passed away peacefully at age 13.
In 2010, we held a retreat led by a shaman, Rose De Dan. Cucumber was now 11 years old, a wolf Elder. Jean instinctively felt that Cucumber was now ready to teach; he would bring her to the yurt to meet with the participants and she would have her chance to connect with them. Cucumber had never been in the yurt, let alone an enclosed space with a group of unfamiliar people. Jean walked her over, thinking to himself, “She’s a good girl. If I do it right, she’ll do it right. This is a big thing for her.”
He brought her to bottom of the steps. She shrank back, tail between her legs. Jean mentally told her, “You have a very big and important job to do—you are a representative for all wolves and these people need to see a good little wolf. But it is up to you and if you don’t want to go in you don’t have to.” After a few minutes, she straightened up and forged ahead of Jean up the stairs and into the yurt. She greeted people one by one. Rose spoke about it later.
“She stood still and raised her eyes to mine. As she continued to maintain eye contact, in my mind I heard the words “I want to be the best representative I can be.” Her gaze was soft and completely open, inviting me to meet her at a soul level. I reached out to touch her, profoundly and deeply moved. As I gently stroked her face I made her and all wild animals a vow: “I promise that I will do everything I can for you.” Cucumber got it; she met me. She stepped right up and showed her willingness to meet us in that place between our worlds.”
Cucumber spent the rest of her life connecting with humans, participating in retreats, welcoming human attention, looking deeply into people’s eyes. She showed us the potential for a new relationship with animals. Under the right circumstances, we can pierce the veil between species. Both human and wild animals can be heard, seen, and mutually enriched. We all need to be seen and heard and recognized for who we are, and to be given the opportunity to reach our full potential. It is an antidote to human desperation and violence, and if we apply it to all life, it is a way into a joyous humming world in which we humans are a vital part, leading the journey ahead.
John O’Donohue wrote, “The earth is full of thresholds where beauty awaits the wonder of our gaze.” I would add that the world is full of living beings waiting to be heard and resonated with, as we welcome and delight in each other and begin to heal humans, animals, and the Earth.
What we do not attend to cannot reach us. If we don’t know to listen, we cannot hear. But the animals are calling us. It doesn’t matter what animal it is or where we are. Any of us can experience this. It is our heritage and it is inherent in the nature of Life if only we realize the possibility and open ourselves up to it. When you go into nature, tune in more deeply. Life is calling to life.
Earthfire Institute is a place to experience the profound connection between all life. Our 40-acre wildlife sanctuary is nestled in the Yellowstone-to-Yukon Wildlife Corridor, an uninterrupted pathway along which plants and animals can still migrate over time, keeping their genes flowing and their species strong. It is the last best corridor of its kind in the world. The institute is a loving home to wild animals that can never be released into the wild and a refuge for reflecting—in their company—on how to create a truly sustainable world.
Earthfire hosts customized retreats with the goal of supporting paradigm shifts in how we relate to nature in the 21st century and beyond. In the presence of our animals and surrounding wilderness, the retreat participants have an opportunity for contemplation and rich dialogue that leads to deeper self-awareness and environmental and social action. In addition to the retreat outcomes, participants’ insights will contribute to a growing library of knowledge maintained by the Institute of how to live sustainably on the earth.
Dr. Susan B. Eirich, co-founder of Earthfire Institute, a non-profit wildlife sanctuary and retreat center near Yellowstone National Park, is an inspirational voice for all life. She has lived with rescued wildlife native to North America for 20 years. With degrees in psychology and biology, she works to bridge scientific and spiritual understandings of wild animals and connections between all life. She has lived and taught around the world, seeing through others’ eyes. earthfireinstitute.org