So distant have we humans become from our wild natures that many of us can barely imagine a reciprocal connection with an untamed animal. Peering into the vast gap that seems to separate us from “wild life,” we may feel awe or primal fear. Yet what often predominates is a heart-longing – to somehow know these mysterious beings and to let them know us. We instinctively seek relationship but don’t know how to create it.
How can we even begin to connect with wild beings – to share emotions, experiences, love and concern – when our contact with them is so fleeting? Most of the time, they’re gone before we even glimpse them. But for wildlife rehabilitators, those in a unique position to support wild animals in their healing and even get to know them as individuals, the opportunities can be much greater.
Working within a maze of permits and regulations, rehabilitators seek to help heal and restore to the wild all kinds of non-humans from rodents to birds to bears to marine mammals, many of whom were originally injured through their encounters with people and our roads, cars, boats, windows, wires and weapons. Grounded in veterinary science, the ethics of rehabbing mandate minimal human/non-human interaction. The wild beings must remain as untamed as possible and not become trusting of humans, in order to give them the best chance at survival upon release.
Yet in many, many cases release is not possible due to the magnitude of an animal’s injuries, or other circumstances. Many such beings are euthanized; few facilities have the resources to care for them indefinitely. Only rarely does a wild being survive rehab to live out its life in a zoo or other confined environment, a representative of its tribe surviving on human terms.
What is life like for these captive beings? Their caregivers are often loving and dedicated to meeting their physical needs. But given their scientific training and our collective cultural conditioning, many rehabbers and zookeepers are closed to deeper levels of relationship. Animals, too, vary in their capacity and desire to open themselves to humans.
The story of the human Jeff Guidry and the Bald Eagle Hanble Okinyan (Lakota for “Dream Flyer”), also known as Freedom, is a precious account of what can happen when human and wild hearts open on equal terms, brother to sister, in reciprocal relationship. Through Jeff’s willingness to share the experiences of his ongoing friendship with Hanble Okinyan we can glimpse sacred possibilities for interspecies connection and healing.
A baby eagle’s struggle for life
Jeff Guidry is a professional musician and also a wildlife rehabilitator at the Sarvey Wildlife Center (http://www.sarveywildlife.org/) in western Washington, north of Seattle. Sarvey is a unique place even among wildlife rehabs, where animals are deeply respected as equals. Unlike many such organizations, Sarvey does public education and outreach, enabling some animals that cannot be released to serve as “ambassadors” for the center and the wild tribes.
Jeff met Hanble Okinyan on a mid-summer day in 1998, when Sarvey got a call reporting that a fledgling Bald Eagle had fallen from its nest on a Seattle golf course. The young bird arrived at the center with two broken wings; too weak to struggle or even stand. She was emaciated and covered with lice. Jeff volunteered to drive her to the Sno-Wood Veterinary Hospital for surgery. He recalls looking back frequently to check on his passenger. Instinctively Jeff felt there was something special about this bird – this Bald Eagle must live!
After surgery her broken wings are pinned and she lay on her belly in the bottom half of a large dog carrier filled with shredded newspaper. Twice a day she was tube-fed and medicated. Jeff spent as much time with her as he could. But after four weeks the young eagle was still unable to stand. It seemed that death was winning. Jeff remembers: “Every chance I got I sat and talked softly to her, encouraging her to hold on, to fight, to live.” Why he felt such a connection to this particular eagle Jeff did not know at the time.
Sarvey Wildlife Center gives every soul the utmost chance, but all rehabbers know the fine line between rehab and torture. It was decided that this beautiful young eagle would be given one more week. If she couldn’t stand up by then, her spirit would be released from her body by euthanasia to continue its journey. Jeff checked every day that week to see if she was up. The answer was always the same… “No.”
On what might be her final day Jeff could barely face going to the center. “As I walked in not a word was spoken but everyone wore a huge grin. I raced back to the young Bald Eagle’s crate, and there she stood in all her glory!” She would get her second chance.
Grounded but not out of action
A short time later the pins in the young eagle’s wings were removed. Her right wing worked perfectly, but despite physical therapy she couldn’t fully extend her left wing, which had been broken in four places. She would never fly free among her great nation.
Most such birds at Sarvey live out their lives in outdoor cages (ironically called flights), but Jeff and others recognized that this was a special being. While Bald Eagles normally shun humans and reject being handled by them, “this girl liked people; she wanted to see what you were doing, to follow where you were going. She was very curious.”
Sarvey’s director suggested that Jeff try to glove-train the young eagle in the hope of doing educational programs with her. The work went well, and this remarkable bird displayed the mellow temperament essential to staying calm in front of crowds. Jeff remembers how their connection grew: “I started getting her used to the glove, a little at a time. At first she was thinking, ‘OK, I’ll step on your hand but only with one foot.’ Then, ‘OK, I’ll use both feet but only for a second.’ Later, ‘Yeah you can take me partway out of my cage, then I’ll jump right back in.’ And finally, ‘OK, I’ll let you walk around with me on your arm. Hey, this is fun!’”
When it was almost time for her first program the young Bald Eagle was finally given a name: Freedom, in honor of her free-flying spirit. She went on to become one of the Sarvey Wildlife Center’s premier ambassadors. “She is a star – she really knows how to turn on the charm.” says Jeff, who has shared the limelight with her on local and national television (including Animal Planet), the front page of major newspapers and “believe it or not” even radio. “She can be so affectionate in public. It's like she's thinking ‘They’re all here to see me!’”
From ambassador to healer
Jeff and Freedom became the closest of true friends, sharing love and commitment. “She is one of the great loves of my life,” says Jeff. “She will touch her beak to the tip of my nose and stare into my eyes. In that moment our spirits are one.”
Then a time came when the profound depth and power of their bond became clear. In the spring of 2000 Jeff was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a deadly cancer of the immune system. “I had Stage 3, which is not good, so I wound up doing eight months of chemo. Lost the hair – the whole bit. I missed a lot of work. When I felt good enough, I would come to Sarvey and take Freedom out for walks. Freedom would also come to me in my dreams and help me fight the cancer. This happened time and again.”
Needless to say, this is how Hanble Okinyan received her true name.
On the Friday after Thanksgiving 2000, Jeff went in for a final evaluation on the progress of the chemotherapy. He had been told that if his cancer was still present his last option was a stem cell transplant, a punishing treatment still in clinical trials at the time. After what must have been a long weekend in more ways than one, Jeff returned on Monday to learn that his cancer was gone.
On hearing this news, Jeff went immediately to visit Hanble Okinyan. When he took her out of her flight, she did something she had never done before: Hanble Okinyan extended her wings and wrapped them around Jeff’s body. The circle of healing was complete.
Jeff had the openness of heart it took to sense the karmic bond he shared with Hanble Okinyan, and to give his Bald Eagle friend courage and support so she could recover her strength and choose to live. And she found a beautiful way to reciprocate, using the direct mind-speech all living beings possess (but which humans have largely forgotten) to enter his dreams and give Jeff the motivation and energy he needed to continue his life.
When we view the chasm that seems to separate human beings and wild beings from the perspective of Hanble Okinyan and Jeff Guidry, it ceases to exist. Instead, we see clearly that there is a bridge between our worlds that love can cross. Humans and untamed non-humans can connect in ways equally as profound as any bonds two humans can share.
It is perhaps not surprising that, like our “domesticated” non-human family of dogs, cats and horses, untamed non-human beings are also capable of friendship, love, hope, inspiration, devotion, humor and understanding. Given time, wild beings will reveal their individual personalities and share deeply with us if they can. As a long-time rehabber Jeff has developed close relationships with bears, cougars and many other non-humans.
Since their story became public knowledge, Jeff has received thousands of e-mails, many from people seeking healing for themselves or a loved one. Overall these messages convey a sense of hope, and gratitude for this inspiring account of the power of love. Jeff requested that “If possible, I would like it if you could put in your article a thank-you to all who have written us.” Consider it done, Jeff.
But while the bond of healing he shares with Hanble Okinyan is unusual, Jeff feels certain that this is not due to any miraculous powers that she possesses. Healing became possible between them because of the depth of their friendship, and is an inherent potential in all relationships. For those who wish to create this kind of love and healing in their own lives, wise teachers and elders throughout time have suggested that we look within rather than outside ourselves – to our own capacity to love and relate – to begin.
We can all enjoy a wonderful connection with animals simply by being fully present with them, wherever we are. With our non-human family members, the act of deeply listening without bringing our own needs into the picture can comfort them and give us intuitive access to their feelings and needs. As more human hearts open up to the potential for relating to non-humans as equals there will be more stories like that of Jeff and Hanble Okinyan.
Jeff Guidry remains well today and is now president of the Sarvey Wildlife Center’s board of directors. Jeff and Hanble Okinyan still take walks, illuminate the lives of others and share the spotlight – now more than ever as their story has swept through cyberspace, finding its way onto dozens of blogs and web pages. Jeff is currently working on a book about their life-walk together, to be published soon. We look forward to reviewing it in an upcoming issue of Inner Tapestry.
Says Jeff: “Hanble Okinyan and I are kindred spirits! We have rescued each other, and now our mission is to teach about the magnificence of the natural world and our impact on a fragile planet.” While it saddens him that his dear friend can never fly free, Jeff feels that “she is where she’s supposed to be, where she can touch so many people.”
As we concluded our interview, Jeff related with beautiful simplicity how it all feels: “If you leave yourself open to this stuff, amazing things happen. The journey I’m on with this great friend who just happens to be a Bald Eagle -- it just never stops. And I’m just never not amazed by what she’s capable of and by what we get to experience together. It’s a huge honor just to be on this ride. I don’t know how I deserve it but I’m not questioning that -- I’m just here.”
Thank you, Hanble Okinyan and Jeff Guidry, for sharing your story and for the truth of who you are.
Scott Cronenweth is a freelance writer, naturalist and shamanic healer based in South Portland, Maine. For ten years, Scott rescued sick and injured seals along the Maine coast under federal permit. To learn about Scott’s nature-based healing practice please visit www.gotbuddhanature.com. For information about his birdwatching and nature tours visit www.naturalpathwalks.com.