The Wisdom of Wild Animals

A Conversation with Dr. Cara Gubbins
Small orange and purple octopus on the ocean floor

In a bit of a departure from our usual format of interviewing thought leaders and changemakers around the globe, this month’s Earthfire Radio has Dr. Eirich as the interviewee. Earlier this year, Dr. Eirich was invited to speak at the Animal Wisdom World Summit. Host Dr. Cara Gubbins has generously allowed us to share the interview with our own listeners. Listen in as these two passionate scientists delve into the mysteries, intricacies, and implications of intelligence in the natural world.


Cara: Welcome, Susan.

Susan: Thank you.

Cara: It must just be like stunningly beautiful where you live.

Susan: It is.

Cara: So you have brought to your life what a lot of people consider to be opposite ends of the spectrum, but you’ve combined them into a spiritual psychology-spiritual ecology and conservationist. 

Susan: Yes.

Cara: Can you tell us the story of how you came to become who you are today?

Susan: That’s always a question of how far back do you go? I remember loving animals as far back as I can remember thinking, and I remember asking my mother as a little girl why animals didn’t have equal rights to humans. It just didn’t make sense to me, right from the beginning. But life being what it was, and parental pressure being what it was, I went to school for a degree in biology and then psychology, working in the prisons, I really loved it. But then, someone invited me to help them raise some wolf puppies, and what are you going to do? Are you going to say no? Then what happened was, I fell completely, totally, hopelessly in love. Uncontrollably in love. I don’t have any physical human children of my own, and the animals aren’t my children in my mind, they’re my companions. But when someone saw me with those both puppies, they said, “You know what happened to you, Susan? Motherhood.” And I could swear what was happening was that oxytocin was flowing through me. I was so bonded to these exquisite, vibrant beings. There were seven of them. They got ill and nearly died, requiring around the clock intravenous liquids and care, and the bonding was so tight, that there was a connection made through which something flowed. I thought to myself, I can’t just keep this for myself, this is something I have to share with other people, the beauty of who these animals are, the beauty of what is possible between a human and wild animal. Not that everybody has this opportunity, but it means that the potential is there for any animal, whether they’re wild or not. That’s one of the things that I really want to teach—no—teach can have an arrogant ring. I want to share with people that any time a wild animal is killed, it’s not just a bear or a wolf, it’s a being with all of that potential. 

Anyway, I couldn’t stand it; I had to share with other people. One of those wolves was called Earthfire and I named the institute after her. All seven were founding wolves, but she had a particular gentleness. Then I discovered that it wasn’t just wolves. It was bears that I fell in love with, or coyotes, or foxes, or cougars. It makes very little difference what the species is once you get to know one, you fall in love. When people ask me what is your favorite animal, my answer is, Whichever one I’m with.” Because you enter into this magic world of the coyote, or a bear, or a wolf, or a human being for that matter. Once you make a real connection, there’s simply beauty and magic and love and wonder. So I decided I had to do something about it, and founded Earthfire Institute.

Cara: At that time, what was your vision for Earthfire Institute?

Susan: It’s fundamentally always the same; to help connect people with the incredible wonder and beauty and richness that’s around us. For everybody’s sake. A lot of people say they like animals better than humans, and I think that’s a mistake. A friend of mine actually said we humans need love the most; we’re the most troubled.

Cara: It’s true.

Susan: But really, if we’re going to make a fundamental change, we have to love everything. That includes all life, and that includes humans. So I really enjoy being a psychologist, and have done it for many years, but it’s secondary. This is the total passion. That’s because of who the animals are.

I think everyone knows this, because they feel it with their own dog or cat or bird—the incredibleness and the magic as you go into connection with any individual being. If it’s your particular dog, your particular cat, you see the beauty, you see the charm, you see everything. It’s the same with anything you bond with, almost like love helps you see the magic.

Cara: That’s beautiful. It reminds me of Karl von Frisch, who was the person who discovered that the waggle dance of bumblebees was actually information and communication. But he said that each species provides us with all of the mysteries of life. If we look into one species, we’re going to find nearly all of the mysteries of life, and what I hear you saying is that when we look into one individual, and we really truly connect, we’re drawn into all of the magic of life.

Cara: So opening ourselves up to that connection can then open us up to more connection and is a more effective way of being in the world, it sounds like.

Susan: Yes. It’s like the animals serve as a portal. For some people it’s plants or trees, but for most people, animals are easier. It’s a beginning to expand our awareness of what’s around us and the magic that’s around us. So if you fall in love with one bear or one wolf, just like if you fall in love with one dog, or one cat, you can’t feel the same about cats after that, or dogs after that, or bears and or wolves. It starts expanding that awareness, and then you begin to realize, wait a minute… Some of the healing stories are the same thing, wait a minute, that energy-healing we tried worked on a wolf; wait a minute, the same thing worked on a cougar; wait a minute, that same thing worked on a buffalo. We get drawn into a visceral awareness of how connected we are rather than just the words. You feel it; you see it. And there can’t be a richer life than that. I just want to share it.

Cara: How do you share it?

Susan: As best I can. I founded Earthfire. We have retreats. Through writings, speaking, the website, small films that we make. I can’t have many people here as we are a sanctuary, not a zoo, so I have to reach out and make the writing and videos in the teachings as vivid as possible. 

Cara: And sharing that experience with your reader or your viewer in such a way that they get that feeling inside themselves?

Susan: Yes. One basic thing of communication is you have to be feeling it yourself if you’re going to convey it, and for me it’s really easy to feel it. Being in love with all of them all of the time, it’s really easy to feel it and then share it.

Cara: So beautiful. So you live in this feeling it sounds like.

Susan: Yes.

Cara: And one of your passions is reconciling the perceived distinction between understanding the animals from a scientific point of view and really seeing them as spiritual beings. Can you explain how those two things aren’t mutually exclusive?

Susan: It’s a huge failing of our western civilization, that we put things into boxes. That’s how they train us to see. And when you fly over the United States, you see the land divided into boxes, in straight lines. We go to a heart doctor or stomach doctor as if they’re not connected? People say to me you’re a biologist and a psychologist,a strange combination — you mean they’re not connected? There are different ways of using our brain: different brain patterns and brain waves—nothing is mutually exclusive. If we think topics are mutually exclusive, we’ve already lost; we already left out a huge amount of information that’s useful. So we can try to understand something scientifically. But that doesn’t mean we have to do it without the sense of magic behind us, or wonder. That’s what we take out, and somehow we need to be able to combine clear thinking, trying to keep our emotions out of distorting things, which is really important; with the clear perception and knowledge that there’s something more than the scientific way of being. Somehow we need to find a way to combine those two. Without heart we risk hard, cold and rigid science. There is great science but with bad science we do such things as looking at animals as objects, missing not just their individuality and spiritual components, but the interconnections between all life that is essential for true understanding. Siencitist get angry—how dare you call that wolf anything other than the number we’ve given it—326 or whatever it is? You’re anthropomorphizing. Then you get people who are over-emotionally involved with animals and don’t look at them for who they are, truly, which is full-blooded beings just like us. They hate, they love, they play, they’re mischievous, they’re jealous, they’re greedy, they’re wonderful, they’re spiritual, they’re biological. They’re beings. They love being seen as beings. But our animals here, actually don’t love people who just want to come for the spiritual element; they kind of want to nip them. They want to bring them down to earth, like this isn’t real. And then they’re a little afraid of people who might come from very hardcore science and look at them as objects. A couple of animals really don’t like it; they have temper tantrums if they’re looked at that way. So they are full bodied beings, and you can look at them from a scientific lens, meaning accurate measuring as best we can, or we can look at them from a spiritual lens, which is trying to feel who they really are, connect with who they really are, on an entirely different level. Some of the healing stories here at Earthfire can only be explained that way. But this is the same being. The divisions are in our head, not in life. Life is very integrated. We can move back-and-forth between all the different ways of seeing animals rather than getting stuck in one. One of my hopes is that somehow we’re going to learn to take those different patterns and integrate them, so it’s not one or the other. We don’t know how to really do that yet. The closest I have found is Buddhism, not the religion but the method of mindfulness, (which has now been co-opted), but truly beginning to awaken so that we are using our whole brain, left and right, back and front, top and bottom, middle, outside, all of it. Integrated. That’s very rare. I think most of us are lucky to maybe have a few moments of that in our life, a glimpse, and yearn for it again, but we need to try to find a way to help each other get there. And it’s not part of our civilization, and it’s not part of our education. We’re going to have to try to find our way ourselves in small groups and support one another, and get it out, this is a new way of being, which is what we need. And when we’re doing that, we’re also connecting with all life. We can’t connect with all life in a hard-core science point of view because we’re looking at beings as things. And we can’t really make excellent decisions just from a spiritual or emotional point of view, because you’ve got to come down to earth into some practical things. But not in a narrow way. It’s a big challenge. I think our potential is to be up to it. I don’t know if our will is strong enough to do it.

Cara: Would it be possible to string together enough experiences of that kind of connection with another life form, that would eventually help us as a species to have that whole brain experience?

Susan: If I understand your question, I think dogs and cats have begun the process for us.

Cara: Yes? So we have that experience with our dogs and our cats, and we have that whole brain experience where we see them as these whole, complete beings that are the spiritual and the physical combined living together, and so then what, we need to expand that to other animals as well?

Susan: Actually, to all Life.

Cara: Yes.

Susan: Another thing that helps with that—there is this tremendous explosion now of books and studies on the various intelligences everywhere. The intelligence of an octopus, and the fact that their consciousness isn’t in a brain, it’s spread out throughout their whole body. So we’re beginning to think of consciousness differently, and that’s really helpful. Or that crows and magpies can outperform chimpanzees in certain tasks. Tiny little brain, how is that possible? One of my favorites is a slime mold that is just this oozing little mass on the ground, and it’s exactly as I said, it’s a slimy, moldy kind of thing. It can outperform a computer. There’s no brain at all. And that’s hard science. This is where science is wonderful. Doing the tests to show the seeking behavior of the amoeba-like slime mold, and how it finds its way as efficiently or more efficiently than a computer, so it actually out performs the layout of the transportation system of Tokyo.

Cara: What?

Susan: I have a blog about that, and there’s a lot of research on it. So we’re beginning to understand that consciousness is everywhere, and it’s not located in the brain. That intelligence is everywhere. That most likely, a lot of current thinkers say, that intelligence is a property of the universe, and that consciousness is a property of the universe. There’s a brilliant physicist Federico Faggin who suggested consciousness came first, even before anything; electromagnetic radiation, space, time, and we are all basically quantum fields, small quantum fields within larger quantum fields. That’s our using our incredible, abstract brains for reaching for the stars and trying to understand, and then there’s another part of our brain, with the deep connection with other life. Ideally we don’t go off into never-never land, into abstract worlds, and we never stay so grounded that we don’t allow ourselves to fly. It’s an interesting balance. Some really interesting thinkers have said we’re not fully human yet. We haven’t gotten there yet. We’re in-between, we’re no longer fully animal and we’re not yet fully human. One part of my interpretation of that, is a sense of decency, ethics, honor, compassion, the best of what we could be and sometimes are. I spoke at a conference at the Sun Valley Institute recently where there were the kids who are suing the government for clean air. They started when they were 12 years old. Incredibly powerful, articulate, brave. And there are these incredible artists that tune into the beauty that’s around us. I hope we humans make it. We’ve got so much to offer.

Cara: Do you think we’re on the edge of a paradigm shift where people will, as a whole, begin to get that awareness and consciousness is not a solely human trait?

Susan: Yes. There’s enough evidence now that it’s getting into the general awareness, though not fast enough.

Cara: And that’s kind of that trickle-down that science can do, it can find these things out for us and then disseminate it to the masses, the regular people, however you want to think about it. And so giving us that information can be helpful, but again I feel like part of what you’re saying is the information is just information, unless we have that experience in our body, it doesn’t have as much meaning. Would that be accurate?

Susan: It’s not even useful. It could even be dangerous, unless we combine it with heart in an embodied wisdom. But it is a uniquely human characteristic, it’s quite wonderful to be able to try and understand the universe. In some ways, you can think of being human as the universe trying to understand itself.

Cara: I love that. I love that. Because we’re not separate from the universe, we’re part of it. Right?

Susan: Well, there isn’t a molecule in our body that didn’t come from the universe, not an atom, and we will go back to the universe.

Cara: So we’ve been living for centuries in these false dichotomies, and you know, I think Descartes was one of the big voices for that, right, and kind of pulled the wool over everybody’s eyes for many centuries, that things either are or aren’t, it’s one or the other, that there’s this duality. And what I hear you saying is, well, obviously that’s not accurate and that there’s a quantum, holistic—I don’t know that I even have the right word for the holistic-ness of the universe, and our place inside of it as connected to it. So I’m feeling like we need a new word to describe—to kind of name what you’re describing of this holistic experience in our bodies, of that whole brain connectedness.

Susan: Our whole brain and body.

Cara: Our whole brain and body?

Susan: If you think whole brain, then you left out the body. It’s a functioning whole. I mean, incredible wisdom comes out from our bodies and all of the individual intelligences in our bodies. There’s millions and trillions of microbes in our bodies, all of whom have their own form of intelligence, but they’re coordinated in some incredibly miraculous way. It’s tremendous wisdom. So we have to be really careful about the words we use, because they actually shape how we think. So if we say our mind, wait a minute, that’s up here, what about the rest of it? And we say “the Earth.” What do you mean, “the Earth”? As if it’s out there and not part of us and we a part of it. . Or if you use the word “Nature.” “I want to help nature,” “Go out into nature.” The whole idea is that we are going out into something else, as opposed to us being an integral part of it; it’s a radical kind of shift. What made me think of that is you saying we have to find other ways of saying it, other than we have to save “the Earth,” “We have to save “Nature.” Nature saves us. It’s an absurdity. I haven’t figured it out— maybe some of your listeners can and will call you or me with their ideas: How do we change the language to express the truth of our interconnection?

Cara: Yes, I love that. How do we express the truth of what we’re saying, how do we find the words that capture and convey the holistic nature of consciousness and connection that is inseparable, right? I think so many of us have the illusion of separation, and I think that’s exactly what you’re getting at. What a lot of my friends in Africa call “the great separation sickness,” the idea that we’re somehow separate from nature, from earth, from the universe, from consciousness, that there are these compartments.

Susan: I don’t know what causes it. A lot of great thinkers such as Charles Eisenstein talks about it. I think there’s some biological element to it, our brains are so complex now, that we haven’t learned how to manage them properly. I think maybe that’s part of not becoming fully human yet. They grew so fast that it’s not integrated properly, to function really as a whole. We have to really work at it. We have to develop our consciousness to begin to integrate our own brain, which is where mindfulness helps us develop ourselves. And to become more alert and aware, rather than just reacting. So to some degree, I think it’s truly biological. This incredibly brilliant thing that we have up there, and we don’t know how to manage it.

Cara: It makes sense when you say it like that.

Susan: And there are consequences of our not managing it; all kinds of societal and environmental consequences, because it’s not integrated with our emotions properly, it’s still a bit of a mess. Our job, to the extent that we can do it and do it in time, is to start making it more coherent and connected with what’s true and loving and eternal and good. Those words all have to be explained, but we don’t have time to do that here. We do all have a sense of what it is. How do we do that is a really interesting question. So I think there is a biological element to the whole issue and there is a spiritual element to it. How do we develop ourselves. How do we come to be born into this incredible state of being human, and even more, the incredible state of being alive. Wonderful mysteries.

Cara: Yes. Do you have a vision for the future, for humanity, for the Life force, for consciousness? I can’t even use the words now. Because they’re too limiting and too separating.

Susan: Yes. On a more physical level, I have a vision: Life needs to flow. A lot of our diseases in the body are because of blocked energy. And we divide the earth up, rivers up, land up—we cut it into pieces. Life needs to flow. If we developed wildlife corridors, through which genes can flow over space and time way beyond our lives so animals can spread their genes freely. One vision is to have wildlife corridors flowing throughout all of the continents so the animals can move freely, and we can interact with them while leaving them space. not chopping everything up and taking everything away from them so we can live in harmony. There’s always going to be some strife, because that’s the nature of life as it was given to us. Animals kill other animals. Even if we’re vegan, we’re still killing life in order to eat, so there’s always that element of conflict unless you sort of transform it but that’s a whole other discussion. But at least you honor whatever life it is that you’re eating, and which gets transformed into you, and you live the best possible life you can to honor it. We were given that situation; we have no choice over that. 

Another Vision is for us to begin to live, feeling the magic. Right outside my window there is a willow tree. It’s a tree. But it’s also a living being, and I swear that if I tell it it’s beautiful, it begins to glow. And I think that’s what happens when we connect, if you see a mother with an infant, there’s a glow between the two of them. We had a little deer here who had only three legs who was hit by a car. Both legs were broken, and he still had his umbilical cord attached. His mother was dead somewhere. A lovely woman who is an emergency nurse picked him up and tried to heal him, but he lost a leg, and she realized she couldn’t keep him, so she gave him to us. It was “Just a deer.” But it wasn’t. Because nothing living is “just a.” That exquisite creature only knew humans. And when people would come to visit, I would swear, he would begin to glow, and then the visitors would begin to glow, and people couldn’t tear themselves away. My thinking was, “I wonder if that’s what it’s like to live in a herd?”. That he was sending out his herd heart to humans inviting us to join in the herd heart. So a vision would be for us to be able to live in connection with all life at that level.

Cara: I love that. I’m kind of wallowing in that for a minute.

Susan: I wallow in it every time I talk about it.

Cara: Yes. The whole concept of that herd heart, I love that, and that feels so visceral and real and true, you know what I mean? Like, wow, yeah, I never thought about it like that, but yeah, what would that be like to live in a herd with that heart glowing and everybody all, you know, more interconnected than the biology of humans, right? Because we tend to be in smaller social groups rather than the big 200 wildebeest on the African plains or whatever. That’s an intriguing question to me. What would that be like?

Susan: And then, if we walk into a forest, being modest, and entering as, I don’t want to say a visitor or a guest, because that’s not right. If we walk in the forest in the right way, (I have to figure out how to explain that) I personally believe the forest welcomes us. That it likes us there, that it wants us there, that it enjoys our companionship just as we enjoy it. Why do we like forests? In general in LIfe there’s a sense of companionship available, and healing. So it’s a deer; it’s a forest, it doesn’t matter. Once the connection is made, then there is this beautiful resonant humming back-and-forth. A flow that supports and encourages and energizes each of us. It’s like a variation of fertilization. It’s not just a deer, it’s everywhere. It’s easier for us with an animal, but it’s everywhere that we could live in that kind of a way. Within that frame of reference, there is what we would call reality: we have to eat, we need to take certain forms of life for our own life form: we cut down a tree ( an animal and plant apartment house), because we want the wood. We have to balance all of that, but that’s the frame of reference. Within that frame of reference, we do nothing mindless, we do nothing wasteful. It’s very different if you take a life mindlessly or with care. Somehow it’s very, very different.If you have PTSD from a flood or a landslide or an earthquake, it’s very different from PTSD from cruelty visited upon us by another human. Very different. And I think that’s true for all life. If we are caring and careful about what we take and how we take, we’ll take less, we’ll take more carefully, we’ll do less damage to the environment. We wouldn’t even have environmental problems, because that’s basically that lack of connection. You talked about separation—that lack of connection means lack of care. Caring comes from connection; disconnection means no care. Then you can do anything, and then you get all of these consequences we’re living with.

Cara: Right. Right. Very well said.

Susan: Learning to care about everything.

Cara: Yes. About everything.

Susan: Learning to care about every living thing, yes.

Cara: Susan, do you have any final words of wisdom that you want to share with our viewers?

Susan: We’re in this together in this incredible magical world, and it’s up to us at this point. I guess my biggest concern is that we don’t get it together enough. We get so lost in ourselves, and our worry, or fear promulgated by the ridiculous media and all the politics, that we don’t go to our best selves and become what we could become. Each of us has incredible power. Each of us, I don’t care if you’re a housewife or president or whatever it is. As humans, each of us can be a nexus for change in our own unique way, with our own unique skills. And that way we’re being ourselves, we’re fulfilling our destiny, we’re helping what’s going to be. It’s not okay to hide and fear. It’s not okay to get lost in all of this other stuff. The times and other lives are asking us to step up to be our best, most powerful selves. In any way we can do it ourselves. In anyway we can support each other. Cara: Those are words to live by. Dr. Susan Eirich, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and your experience with us. I’m so grateful to have you as part of the Animal Wisdom World Summit.

Susan: My pleasure.

Learn more about Dr. Gubbins’ work at

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