Photo by Jamye Chrisman
The animals have lifted a veil and made a connection with us in that place where we are all one. The animals are calling us to council.
About the Author
Articles in This Issue
The Wisdom of the Wild
La Sabiduría de la Selva.doc
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Thunder the Wolf spent the summer of his sixteenth year in Earthfire’s wildlife garden, resting his huge, ancient frame in the cool grass under the shade of his favorite tree. As August rolled into September, he could no longer stand or even roll over. But strong wolf that he was, his heart beat on when his organs failed. Seeing him linger, my partner and I felt compelled to help ease Thunder’s passing, so we called our vet, Don, a practical, no-nonsense fellow. On a sunny autumn afternoon, as I sat caressing Thunder in the garden, Don arrived. He took out his stethoscope, knelt down beside Thunder, gently gave him his final shot, and listened to his heart. The very instant when Thunder’s life left his body, all thirty of our wolves began a long, low, mournful howling. They had no way of seeing or hearing what was going on, yet somehow they knew. Don, still on his knees, turned pale and murmured, “That’s eerie.” He stood up, urgently looking around for some realistic explanation. He asked if the wolves were being fed or if someone was driving up and repeated, “That’s eerie . . . the timing.” The wolves’ howling was so unexpected and so clear that it reached the depths of him. The wolves were responding to Thunder’s passing, and Don will never be the same.
Jean Simpson, my partner and a wild animal trainer, founded Earthfire Institute with me in 2000 to give sanctuary and voice to the wild ones. Named after a passionate wolf with an urge to protect the vulnerable, Earthfire is located on forty acres near the base of the Grand Teton Mountains, on the Wyoming-Idaho border. It is home to bears, wolves, cougars, lynx, bison, and other wildlife native to the Rocky Mountains who can never be set free for various reasons. Our animals come from fur farms and roadside zoos; they are orphaned wild babies, captive pets who could no longer be kept, or deformed or “undesirable” animals. Because they can never be set free, these animals live their whole lives with us. During the day, they play in specially constructed gardens; at night, they rest in private enclosures that protect them. We give them the best available medical care, both Western and alternative, and we are constantly seeking new ways to help them. In caring for them and living with them, our lives, hearts, and minds intertwine, and we are all immeasurably enriched. Each animal is a distinct being, with a soul and a passion to live.
After much thought about how best to help the animals’ voices be heard by more people, Jean and I began to offer retreats in which people are able to experience the animals. They see them, hear them, feel them, and make a connection with them. The animals’ reactions and the humans’ experiences continually astound me. We all grow and are changed and enriched—blown away, in fact. Somehow we have created the conditions for a sacred space in which humans and wild animals meet, and the communion between them occurs on its own, quite beyond my understanding. While a recounting of their experiences are outside the scope of this article, we highlight here some of the animals and the experiences Jean and I have had with them that lead us to believe wild animals are sensitive, passionate, individual beings with soul and spirit—all a part of the fabric of life we share.
Humble Bumble’s Sweetness
Most of our animals are named for their magnificence—Northwind, Midnight Journey, Prairie Smoke, Stardance. Humble Bumble is a “differently abled” or “specially abled” grizzly bear. We brought him home as an infant from a roadside zoo that was closing. No one wanted him. It was clear that something was wrong with him. When we tried to feed him, he would lie on his back, absolutely rigid in our arms, his eyes staring up at the ceiling, his mouth sucking ineffectually at his bottle for twenty to thirty minutes at a time as he tried to sooth himself with a panicked burbling sound. Any movement frightened him. Perhaps he had been dropped. We don’t know what happened.
As Humble Bumble grew, we saw that he wasn’t coordinated and that one eye sort of wandered, as a host of unique characteristics continued to show themselves. When we give the other bears hay for their winter den, they gather up every single piece and spend days carefully arranging the hay into a neat, snug bed. Humble’s hay is scattered everywhere in random, chaotic confusion. It took us years to ease him into the world, to help him try new experiences. It was a momentous day when he finally dared to go into a pool to swim. He had spent months slapping the water and leaping back in fear before we finally heard that great splash of entry. When Humble feels overstimulated or nervous, which happens easily, he goes to a corner of his enclosure and faces the wall while he repeatedly bounces up and down, much like a child rocking to and fro.
Earthfire visitors who have relatives with Down’s syndrome tell us that Humble’s innocent, sweet, trusting, and joyful nature reminds them of those relatives. To see the care with which he plays clumsily but sweetly with his friend Boychuk, a German shepherd who is one-tenth his size, adds a new dimension to our perception of bears. Although all the other bears go into hibernation during the winter, Humble remains quite social, often coming out to greet visitors. Every living creature has a gift to give, and Humble is a unique “spokesbear” for his kind. Everyone who meets him falls in love with him—quite a feat for a grizzly bear. Over the years, he has led me to wonder if the potential for such inexpressible sweetness in a grizzly bear might mean that the same underlying potential exists in all of us. How can we bring this forth and override the hardwiring for fear and self-preservation that is so strong?
Windwalker, Spiritual Cougar
Windwalker is a cougar who came into what appeared to be a spiritual state of beauty and gentleness as he reached a ripe old age. In his book Alzheimer’s Isn’t What You Think It Is, Elmer Green describes how statements of great spiritual wisdom came through his wife even as Alzheimer’s destroyed her physical brain and left her unable to speak for months. It was as if she were occupying two worlds at once, bringing glimpses from beyond. Perhaps as age weakens the grip of biological forces on the brain, a similar thing happens with all old creatures—humans and animals—allowing a connection with the larger life forces to blossom. When retreat participants met with Windwalker in his last year, he would purr the entire time. It was a deep, resonant purr that gave us the impression his purring was a healing offering. Diane, a retreat participant who suffered from an autoimmune disease, told us that she was telepathically called by Windwalker to visit Earthfire.
Near the end of his days, Windwalker could no longer use his hind legs; he spent his time lying on his side. We gave him soft, clean blankets to lie on, and cleaned him as best we could. Knowing he would leave his body before I returned from a two-week trip, I went to him to say goodbye. He purred, looked at me, and then turned his head away as if to say it is done. A few days later when Jean checked in on him, he sensed that Windwalker’s end was near. Jean returned a few hours later and found Windwalker sitting tall and upright, magnificent even in his old age. He was looking up and out of his protected enclosure, gazing up at the sky. Windwalker was so lost in wherever he was that he didn’t hear Jean arrive, didn’t feel him approach until Jean touched him. Jean says Windwalker startled, as though he was suddenly reminded he had a body. As Windwalker got weaker, Jean lay down next to him. Windwalker purred and purred, although it grew weaker and weaker. At the end, Jean purred for him and held Windwalker in his arms as he took his last breath. Jean’s account reminds me of the stories I read about the dying in Final Gifts, a book by two hospice workers, Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelly. With a foot in both worlds, Windwalker behaved the way people approaching death often behave.
The Healing of Apricot and Teton Totem
Apricot is a wolf who somehow survived distemper in her brain but a few years later began to display neurological symptoms. Her eyes were unfocused, her neck arched at a strange and uncomfortable angle, and her weaving walk was uncoordinated. The vet told us that prednisone might help but that there was no real treatment. Prednisone did help a little, but we really didn’t want to keep Apricot on a steroid that might shorten her life. I asked Jill, an energy healer whose specialty was damaged nervous systems in humans, if she would like to try healing a wolf, and she consented.
Apricot is a shy wolf, not used to other people, so we didn’t know how she would take to being touched by a stranger. Jill wanted to do the work in a comfortable setting and suggested that we take Apricot to our yurt. Apricot had never been there, which added another element of uncertainty to the healing we had arranged for her. We walked her into a new setting to meet a new person for a new experience. Jean and I reassured Apricot as Jill put her hands on her. In a few minutes, Apricot lay down and went into a deep trance while Jill worked on her neck and head. For forty-five minutes, she lay there taking in energy. When Apricot came out of the trance, she looked around, apparently dazed, then got up and walked around a bit before coming back to ask for more. The next day there was a brightness in her eyes and a bounce in her step, though the symptoms persisted. The second time we gave her the energy healing, we tried it on a massage table. After a couple of minutes of adjustment, Apricot went into a trance again, and when Jill was finished, Apricot continued to lay there for a long time, breathing deeply. The third time, Apricot pulled us over to the massage table. Over time, all symptoms disappeared. For the last two years, Apricot has been symptom free. She is now fourteen, and last summer, in an expression of pure joie de vivre, she leapt from the top of our 15-foot waterfall into the pond.
Since then, I have asked energy healers to work on two other wolves with neurological issues, Cucumber and Uintah. Though tentative at first, each went into that same healing trance, and afterward each was better, if not fully healed. The effect of energy healing appears to cross species, all of us responding to universal healing energy.
There are obvious limitations to hands-on healing with a grizzly bear, especially one like Teton with an aggressive streak. Over two years, Teton Totem had slowly become paralyzed in his hind end, though he was still in his prime. He would drag himself across his enclosure with his front paws. After we had tried all that Western medicine could offer, I turned to Penelope Smith, well known for her work in interspecies telepathic communication. She had previously met and loved Teton. Penelope agreed to do what she could and contacted Teton telepathically from her home in Arizona. She received an image of a slipped disk in Teton’s lower back. She asked him how it happened, and he flashed her a picture of a time when he was standing a few years ago and felt something slip in his lumbar. Penelope worked with Teton daily to facilitate his healing. Whatever the explanation, the facts are that after the first day, Teton dragged himself to his pool and placed his right hind leg in the water as he tried to swing it to and fro. Each day we watched him and observed microscopic improvement. In time, he was able to walk again. That winter he entered his den walking normally, and when he came out the next spring, he was still walking normally.
Cindar’s Telepathic Cry
Cindar was a beautiful, vibrant, black wolf. One evening when she didn’t look well, we brought her into the cabin. She seemed terribly vulnerable, so we asked Summer, a vet, to examine her. X-rays showed congested lungs, and Summer diagnosed severe pneumonia. Although we started Cindar on heavy antibiotics, none of us felt right about the diagnosis. How could pneumonia take hold so suddenly and strongly in a healthy young wolf? One night Summer woke up with a new diagnosis: Cindar had a lung torsion, a twisted lung. With the blood supply cut off, a part of the lung died, filling the rest with fluid from a massive infection. No one local could perform the necessary surgery, so we frantically made arrangements for Jean to rush Cindar to a specialist in Salt Lake City. Cindar died on the way there.
Whenever we lose an animal from an unknown cause, or in this case an unusual one, we have an autopsy done to be sure the other animals are not at risk. Cindar’s autopsy confirmed Summer’s diagnosis. But why would a healthy young wolf die of such a rare illness? Summer said she probably wouldn’t see another lung torsion in her lifetime. Trying to understand, Jean and I eventually remembered that in Traditional Chinese Medicine each organ has not only its own function and vibrational frequency but also holds the energy of a specific emotion. The emotion associated with the lungs is grief. It depletes the lungs and causes them to contract. If people with lung problems suffer from deep sadness, why not wolves?
Now we wondered about the possible causes for Cindar’s grief. There were no recent losses or changes at Earthfire, and then the same explanation suddenly occurred to both of us: hunters in Idaho had recently begun to kill wolves. Not only were they shooting them, they were rejoicing in the killings. Many in the Rocky Mountain states want to eliminate wolves by whatever means, and they regard the wolves’ suffering as irrelevant and justified. The governor of Idaho himself held a rally on the state house steps to declare that he wanted to be the first to shoot a wolf when the ban was lifted. There is considerable documented evidence that wolves are telepathic among their packs across long distances, much like our experience with Thunder’s passing and the wolves that responded with mournful howling. Is it possible that Cindar was feeling the pain of her nearby kin?
Death is a part of nature, but death inflicted with a cruel intent to destroy is another matter. Therapists who work with people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder report that recovery from PTSD due to natural causes such as an earthquake is different from PTSD due to torture. The element of malicious intent by a fellow being compounds the suffering. Psychologists also report that some children who are not listened to or understood attempt to communicate through illness. Some animal communicators believe that illness and death can sometimes be an animal’s way of communicating. Did Cindar develop a fatal illness not only in response to the slaughtering of her kin but also to communicate this tragedy? Her death has left us with a profound sadness for the plight of wolves—and of all other animals.
I think we humans “survive” by becoming numb, tuning out the pain around us. It is too much to bear unless we have a framework that helps us tolerate the suffering, such as the Buddhist way of compassion. Animals do not have this kind of framework for their suffering. They are being driven off the earth, and so we hear of elephants that rampage, chimps that go wild, and bears that attack humans encroaching on their space. Those unable to fight become ill or sadly melt away. Deena Metzger says of her alliance with the elephants: “I do not think I called the elephants to me. I think they are coming to us, calling us. I think they are consciously transmitting cries of anguish and grief, and some of us are hearing them and are responding.” I would add that all the animals are calling out to us. When we tune out, it doesn’t save us; we still somehow feel the suffering of other living beings. If we take the time and make the effort to tune in to the animals, they will remind us of what is and what can be. During one visit to Earthfire, Penelope Smith came rushing up to me to say, “The animals are beside themselves because we are listening to them. It has already gone twice around the world that humans are listening to them!” Animals can keep us connected to our hearts, without which there is no real meaning. When we are connected to our hearts, we won’t lose our way in top-heavy abstractions and technological innovations. The animals at Earthfire have lifted a veil and made a connection with us in that place where we are all one. The animals are calling us to council.
I have the privilege of living with wild animals. My astounding experiences with them have taught me that when we leave any beings out of our consideration, we cannot be whole. Still connected to nature, which is our heritage too though we are largely lost to it, animals have much to teach us. Our story together is still being written, and there is much we can do to honor the animals, the earth, and all its beings. Here are some starting points:
1. Saving land for the animals is a top priority because they are being pushed off the earth. Many local, national, and international organizations are working to address this threat. Learn from them and support them. For example, the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, which focuses on wildlife corridors, offers a model that can be applied to your region. The Wild Foundation is another good organization that can provide guidance with its broad perspective.
2. If you are interested in preserving critical habitat, why not start with your local planning and zoning commissions. Again, organizations like the Wild Foundation and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative can assist with connections and advice.
3. Give yourself some quiet time each day. Without it, we risk losing contact with what is most important and clarity about how to act effectively.
4. After careful consideration of who we are and what needs to be done, tithe 10 percent of your time each week or month to help the earth in some way.
5. Cultivate mindfulness, and help others to be mindful as well. Many forms of meditation and awareness practices can help us with this. Work to make mindfulness practices a part of our schools’ curriculum.
6. Incorporate an enlarged sense of community, one that includes all living beings, into your thinking and that of others. Self-centeredness and human-centeredness cost us dearly, for we make decisions without understanding the consequences to the whole. Nature is not a backdrop against which human affairs are played out; it is where we come from and what sustains us.
7. Eat and live both mindfully and sparingly. Our food and the raw materials for the production of our consumptive and affluent lifestyles are derived from land that has been taken away from the animals. Support curricula in the schools that explore where our sustenance and affluence come from and their costs. Raise awareness in your neighborhood and in on-line discussions.
8. Read The Way of Council by Jack Zimmerman and Virginia Coyle, and learn about “the council of all beings” that Joanna Macy and John Seed have taught. Then, sit in council with the plants and animals in your area. Deena Metzger shares interesting ideas about this on her website. In her book Quest, Denise Linnsuggests variations on vision quests, which can be adapted even in the city. Look into the shamanic perspectives that build a bridge between humans and animals. Penelope Smith’s website also offers many resources. All of these can lead to new avenues of activism.
9. Attend a retreat at Earthfire Institute. Suggest retreat leaders who can explore new horizons and solutions for our relationship with animals and nature.