Susan Eirich created the Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary & Retreat Center in 2000 with an important goal in mind: changing the way that people see, and therefore treat, wildlife and nature. To bring us into a closer relationship with nature, the licensed psychologist, biologist and educator helps people to see themselves as part of nature, rather than superior to all forms of living things. Earthfire accomplishes this through its podcasts, online forum and up-close-and-personal retreats.
Jean Simpson, Eirich’s partner and co-founder of Earthfire, agrees that their efforts can help people achieve a new way of thinking and being. Back in 1989, he founded the Wild Bunch Ranch to offer his animal training expertise and consulting services for work in feature films, documentaries, commercials and still shoots. Simpson has a deep understanding of many species and intimate experience with individual animals, which he shares with Earthfire as a consultant on animal welfare, safety and animal home design.
In the early years, Eirich had limited staff and little infrastructure, devoting much of her time to getting to know the animals in her community and recognizing each one for its individual characteristics. But she was also deep in thought, planning for a better future.
Eirich believes humanity’s relationship with nature is beginning to change — and that Earthfire can help us move toward a new way of being. “I see each living being, plant, tree, animal as a source of wonder, if only I am able to connect with each one on its own terms,” Eirich notes. By accepting that we are a part of the natural world, we can start connecting with the wild animals living around us.
The Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary & Retreat Center is located on 40 acres of land at the southern end of the 2,000-mile Yellowstone to Yukon wildlife corridor. The Rocky Mountains there offer a rare opportunity to see animals that were here long before the arrival of the first Europeans. Yellowstone is one of the few homes of grizzly bears in the lower 40 states. It also has the largest elk, pronghorn and moose migrations in North America, freely roaming herds of bison, the largest number of big horn sheep, and large numbers of raptors, grey owls and wintering rough-legged hawks.
All life is mutually dependent. “At Earthfire,” as Eirich observes, “we see each animal as an ambassador for their species, and treat them with respect and dignity. If we can’t save them here, we can’t save them anywhere.” Earthfire creates the opportunity for life-changing interactions between humans and wildlife by providing a home for animals that are not capable of living in the wild and a safe place for humans to meet them. “These encounters create a deep, transformative sense of the connection between us and the larger community of life.”
Through its podcasts, Earthfire addresses a number of pressing issues and current environmental topics, such as the cultures of Indigenous people who acknowledge Earth Law, which protects the environment for all life by treating it with reverence, respect and humility. Earth Law also warns humans that our well-being and health depend upon our connections with nature.
Seismic shifts in how we usually approach nature are needed, and there are many stories that indicate that tremors have already started. The rights of nature have been written into the constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia. In New Zealand, the Whanganui River was recently accorded legal rights, followed by a natural park and a mountain range. The Earth Law Center reports that Mexico City recently passed a law specifically recognizing “the rights of rivers, channels and streams — including a right to flow, a right to avoid harmful alterations to ecosystems and biodiversity, a right to be free from contamination, and a right to rescue and rehabilitate important water zones.” In the U.S., over two dozen municipalities have adopted local laws that address the rights of nature.
Earthfire offers an online series with a wide and free range of conversations that has gained a lot of interest and continues to grow. “We explore how mindful interaction with wild animals can shift human perception and thinking about the value of all life, create intellectual and spiritual understanding, and change people’s perception of the role of wild animals in our community and, unintentionally, the health of our planet.”
Earthfire also offers retreats that provide interspecies contacts both in their garden and in nature. After several meetings with the animals at Earthfire, participants are equipped to hike into the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem to experience the landscape and environment for themselves.
Animals can serve as our translators, opening doors to greater understanding. “Understanding our profound kinship with all life may be key to our survival,” says author and scholar Andrew Harvey. “Earthfire helps us to see the beauty, wonder and richness that surrounds us.”
Earthfire’s story is one of love. We are all part of nature, and all species are traveling on the same journey with us. “It is about the possibilities of being in the world with one another,” Eirich says. “After thinking, being with the animals and learning what they have to say, we can then take their story out to the world.”