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.