Voices from the Wild by Mariah Palmer

I had an article published in Wild Hope Magazine! It’s such an honor to be included in this beautiful, uplifting magazine sharing stories of hope for wildlife. This article is about my visit to the Earthfire Institute, a wildlife sanctuary in Driggs, Idaho. It was truly a delight to meet Susan and Jean and share their story. You can purchase the issue here. Read the full story below.

I first met Susan Eirich at Where the Wild Things Were, an event I hosted last fall in Bozeman, MT. The goal of the art show and farm-to-table dinner was to bring attention to the plight of keystone predators, specifically, wolves, grizzly bears and wild cats with whom we share the land. I sought out Susan, director of the Earthfire Institute, to be a speaker because I knew about the wildlife sanctuary she and her partner, Jean Simpson, had co-founded and the unique, heart-centered work they were doing with animals. In conversations about conservation, I often find the spiritual element is missing. There are many people devoted to furthering our understanding through science or policy yet rarely do we consider our relationship or spiritual connection to the earth and wild animals. Susan and Jean are doing just that. After experiencing Susan’s warmth and her stories that brought our guests to tears and laughter, I knew I wanted to experience Earthfire in person and meet Jean, the man who creates the container for a more in-depth understanding through his unique way of collaborating with wild animals.

I am filled with anticipation as I find my way through the pouring rain to The Earthfire Institute located in the Teton Basin near Driggs, Idaho. Following a narrow, winding dirt road, the only indication that I’m on the right track is a posted sign warning the presence of domesticated wildlife. Tucked away in the woods and not readily accessible to the public, my first impression is that this place was built for the comfort of the animals, not the entertainment of humans. While Earthfire hosts retreats offering interspecies interactions a few times a year, they are generally not open to the public. The enclosures are well protected, so much so that I can’t see any of the animals. Beyond the enclosures are expansive gardens with a protected area spanning 40 acres and a view of the Tetons. A finger of the Yellowstone to Yukon wildlife corridor runs through the property making it very alive. It’s both wild and contained. I feel much gratitude upon arrival, as the clouds literally part and I understand my presence here is unique. I’m greeted warmly by Susan and instantly feel at home as I sit down with her and Jean in their office to hear their story, of how they arrived here—wholly devoted to the animals.

Susan was born in England of Austrian parents and immigrated to the East Coast as a young girl. She loved animals for as long as she can remember and always carried a strange desire to be with a wolf. Despite not having any pets of her own, her father instilled a strong bond with nature. He was a born naturalist and shared his love of exploring with Susan. He also loved animals and after he witnessed his first deer shot on a hunting trip with his father, he knew that was the beginning and the end of shooting for him. This spark of love and reverence for nature was imprinted on Susan.

As an adult, she pursued a career as a psychologist, which she found fascinating and satisfying. But eventually returned to her primary love, nature and took a job directing a nature center. Finally, at age 30, despite her lack of animal companionship, that deep whisper remained until the day she finally adopted her wolf-hybrid, Tatanka. She knew she needed to do right by the animal and honor that it was neither wolf nor dog, wild nor tame. This animal was by her side always. She ended up traveling across the country in search of other wolf-hybrids to find companionship for Tatanka. This journey eventually led her to Jean.

Jean was born in the US and moved back and forth between Italy, France and Belgium. Because his family was always moving, there was never an opportunity to have pets. Still, animals were always attracted to him. From a very young age, his mother observed him being approached by horses, cows and sheep as he walked down country roads. This was entirely natural for him, and it wasn’t until later in life that he discovered this to be a gift. At the age of 19, his family sent him back to the US to learn English. However, he was discontented with school and took off for the mountains to ski and work instead.

Eventually, he ended up working at a mine in Utah in the middle of the desert. What attracted him to this work was simply the location—the middle of nowhere. Needing some meditation time, he purchased a horse and spent the weekends alone in the desert and observed. He learned the language of cougars, snakes, coyotes, badgers, and deer. This place healed him of the resentment he was carrying, of the loss of his father at 12, and of being tossed around and never really feeling like he had a home.

Jean’s journey of working with animals started when he met Doug Seus who trained animals for movies. He found that he could get along better with his animals than Doug did. Here was his entry point into the movies, which eventually led him to handle animals for major Hollywood films. Jean pioneered a new way to work with the animals, seeing them as co-creators, instead of inanimate objects to use at will. He saw a lot of mistreatment and knew that it didn’t have to be that way. He showed a new way. After everything the animals had taught him, and for the healing they evoked in his own life, the next natural step was to return the kindness.

Jean and Susan met on a stormy New Year’s Eve in 1990. Susan’s friend Mary had a hunch that she had to meet this half-French man and his wolves, so they made the journey from Flagstaff, Arizona through blizzard conditions to Jean’s unheated, unfinished cabin at 8,000 feet near Park City, Utah. Due to the storm, Jean’s driveway was impassable, so they made the final trek by foot in minus 30-degree weather. As they rounded the last curve and caught sight of the wolves in their enclosures, Susan was instantly captivated by their vibrant, kinetic energy. They spent that evening huddled around the wood stove, discovering the beginning of something larger than themselves. The next morning when Jean took Susan to meet the wolves, she witnessed a high level of intelligence that the wolves displayed through their interaction and was struck by the close bond shared between Jean and the wolves. She describes it as, “a combination of wild energy and loving care.” After this visit, Susan found herself disoriented and unable to return to life as she knew it. Some time later they became a couple, and one with a mission: to give back to the animals that had brought them together.

The Earthfire Institute was founded in 2000, which is now home to mostly domesticated wild animals native to the northern Rockies. They are licensed to do wildlife rehabilitation and currently provide sanctuary for 33 animals including; brown and black bears, wolves, coyotes, foxes, a mountain lion, bison, a three-legged deer and many more. Some were injured or orphaned in the wild and unable to survive on their own. Others were born into captivity, either as a product of the movie industry or circuses or naive people thinking it’s a good idea to keep wild animals as pets. Earthfire not only gives them a place to live, I’m convinced it’s a place where they also experience joy.

You can feel the love and thoughtfulness that goes into every enclosure and the gardens that emulate wild habitat. Susan and Jean’s vision is far reaching as they talk about plans for improvement. Instead of dreaming of vacations, or better living conditions for themselves, they dream of grander gardens for the animals. With Earthfire’s unique framework, they can explore the distinctive personality of each animal, allowing their true essence to emerge and for a loving connection between human and animal. As they speak about the animals they have lost, tears flow freely, and you understand just how deeply each animal has touched them. Sharing this potential for connection between human and wild animal gives us a new understanding of their capacity for love and relationship. When we understand that each animal has its own soul or personality, how then, can we deduce them to just another bear or wolf?

When I asked Jean if he thought his method of working with the animals could be taught, he responded after a pause and said, “You have to become the animal.” I contemplate this often. What does it feel like to be that bird, flying through town with food for its babies, gracefully moving through traffic and trees? And who is behind the soft loving gaze of my dog? What is it like to embody the purity of love and excitement that leaps and twists through her body? There is a reason we’re so captivated by our pets and wildlife. The key is to take the experience beyond our identification and sense instead, the animals’ experience. To feel into the world this way changes everything.

Following our conversation, Susan and Jean take me on a tour to meet the animals. We first visit two bison, a horse and two donkeys all happily cohabitating in a large open pasture. Jean, enters the fence and takes them for a short stroll–a strange, yet contented bunch. Next, I meet the wolves. I instantly feel a rush of energy as they run out into their garden. They express a vitality like nothing I’ve experienced. It sends a rush up and down my spine. Finally, meeting Teton, a grizzly bear they had raised from a cub, left a lasting impression. I was able to sit directly outside his enclosure, just a few feet away. His presence was overwhelming and brought me to tears. Tears I couldn’t explain at first. He wanted to connect and so did I. Later as I meditate on this well of emotion, I think about the loss of our connection to the wild. The call within myself that cries out for a deeper understanding. I touch on the sadness of the fragmentation of our world, separating everything in our minds and cutting ourselves off from the whole. Disconnected from our own true nature.

So how do we begin to heal this fractured relationship with nature? Indeed, we can’t all live with or engage with wild animals as Susan and Jean do, nor should we. Their situation is unique and takes a lifetime of cultivating innate knowledge and highly specialized training to interact with wild animals in this way. Yet, the work at Earthfire gives us a window into the possibility for a fluid connection with wildlife, one that runs through our being every time we face a decision that affects our natural world. To deny this is to deny a part of ourselves, a vitality that wants to run through every living thing. I believe this vitality was the calling that Susan and Jean heard and followed. A calling to help us build a bridge between human and animal, man and nature. When talking about conservation, we can bring a broader perspective into the conversation, including the fact that each animal is an individual, and has the capacity for a wide range of emotions, including some similar to our own. In the scientific world, it’s frowned upon to mingle emotion with the pursuit of knowledge. We’re careful not to anthropomorphize our observations. While this can be useful in specific studies, in this case, the goal at Earthfire is not to collect data but to collect stories and to share the emotional, spiritual life of animals. As Jean sits with each animal, a new understanding of their true nature emerges. Susan shares this understanding with the world by speaking at events and conferences, bringing representation for the animals into discussions that generally wouldn’t include this essential voice.

As I write this, I reflect on the work of Rachel Carson, a courageous woman who elevated scientific knowledge through lyrical prose and shifted our collective consciousness into the modern environmental movement. I give thanks to her for paving the way for the possibility that we can all reach deep and, like Susan and Jean, listen to the whisper from the wild. If we could all connect to nature in this way, surely there is hope for finding a new way of living together on Earth.

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