Susan Mc Elroy is the author of the New York Times bestseller Animals as Teachers and Healers and the more recent Animals as Guides for the Soul. As a humane educator, wildlife rehabilitator, zookeeper, veterinary assistant, kennel and stable hand, puppy trainer, and current Delta Society Board Member, Susan McElroy has loved and worked with animals all of her life. Diagnosed with cancer in 1987, she discovered that the lessons learned from animals over the course of her lifetime provided the most vital boost toward her healing and recovery. A former environmental technical editor and current freelance writer, McElroy contributes to Vegetarian Times Magazine, and has also produced a lecture series entitled Animal Wisdom with Sounds True Audio Company. McElroy has also contributed to the following published works: Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals, co-edited by Deena Metzger, Linda Hogan, and Brenda Peterson; Chicken Soup for the Surviving Soul, by Jack Canfield; Wounded Healers, by Rachel Maoni Remen; Kinship with the Animals, by Michael Tobias and Kate Solisti. For the past five years, Susan McElroy has been collecting stories and reflections modern myths about humankind's relationship with animals. Animals serve as embodiments of exemplary character, mirrors of ourselves and our needs, as gateways to the instinctive nature, and ambassadors to the realms of spirit and mystery. McElroy's lectures and seminars about this ancient and vital relationship have been enthusiastically endorsed by healthcare professionals, students, psychologists and social workers, clergy, veterinarians, and, of course, animal lovers. Susan lives with her husband Lee and their animal family on a small farm in Wyoming called "Brightstar."

     Susan, do you feel that animals have souls?

Who would ever assume that animals didn't have souls? If souls exist, animals have them. Humans have defined the term "soul," and have at different periods of history granted these souls to different species, when we were feeling particularly generous. I personally feel this kind of arrogance is ludicrous on our behalf. Animals are living beings. I've heard that when a bear is skinned, it looks exactly like a human being. As philosopher Mary Midgely says, "We are not rather like animals. We ARE animals." There is simply no logical case for denying animals their souls.

     Do you feel that animals are evolving spiritually? 

Yes, Yes, Absolutely! What makes you feel this? Well, if you believe in the nearly universal spiritual axiom that "all is one," then if I am to believe that I am evolving spiritually (which in a deeply felt sense I do), the rest of Creation must be doing the same! Susan, how does relationship with and treatment of animals relate to our own spirituality and unfoldment as human beings? This question is an important one for me personally, and I find that the answer changes over time! Several years ago, I would have said our treatment of animals reflects our own level of compassion sort of the Ghandi view that a nation's strength can be evaluated based on its treatment of animals. But I find that too limited a view of our spiritual relationship with the animal kingdom. The more I allow animals into my life and heart, the more I see that my entire spiritual progression is wrapped up snugly in my animal family. As I see my animal companions more as teachers and shamens, I realize that all forms of life are powerful spiritual teachers. I no longer find myself limited to human wisdom about life. On the contrary, I go first to animals and to nature to find answers and insight into all the intangible questions of life. And of course, the intangibles like love, honor, respect, mystery, wisdom are the only issues that seem to matter to me anymore. My relationship with animals has brought me so much closer to the sense of "oneness" I have read so much about, and have experienced so little modern culture. Many deep ecologists tell us that nature and animals teach us about collaboration, relationship, and interdependence, and these are concepts important to living a deep spiritual life. The idea that we are not alone, are not meant to "do it" all alone, and that we receive support from the universe-­whether from tangible or intangible realms are thoughts that keep me uplifted and hopeful on what can sometimes incorrectly seem like a lonely inner quest. Most importantly, I do not believe that we will be fully human again until we return to our original animistic view of the world the view that saw all of creation as sacred. Until we can really own this idea, our spiritual quests will be stingy, tight, and self serving or what my publisher so painfully refers to as "mental masturbation." A spiritual life is not a life to be lived in our heads or in some building with a cross on top, but in the world, imbedded in life and in the mystery of it all. Animals seek us out for this kind deep, wordless communion, and help us home to our spiritual selves.

     What can we do to enhance the spiritual lives of our animal companions and other animals?

Provide comfort and safety for them. When I am afraid and insecure, I find it hard to focus on the most simple spiritual principles of compassion and forgiveness for my self or anyone else. I find it hard to be my genuine self. Fear blocks the spiritual flow. Animals forced to flee to new home grounds as we eat up the earth space, animals abandoned and abused, animals living their lives on factory and fur farms­these beings are so used up and stressed in body and heart that I can't imagine they have any room left for their souls. One of the greatest joys of my life is caring for my animal family and keeping them safe and secure to the best of my ability. To see them bask in this care is to watch a heart bloom like a flower. Their joy and rest becomes my form of spiritual service. We all benefit in this loving collaboration.

     How can we expand the awareness of people to include animals as spiritual beings?

Live what you believe. You can never argue or shame anyone into a new way of seeing the world. I try my darndest to live what I teach and live in the most public way possible­through my writings­so that people can have a sense of what a life lived in spiritual harmony looks like. I am a real novitiate, so I make sure the world sees my failures as well as my successes in my spiritual growth.

     Would you comment on your relationship with the animals in your care? What have they given you? What have you given them?

We have so many animals who come to us. Many stay, and just as many pass through on their way to new loving homes. Our dogs, Strongheart and Arrow both teach me about protection. Arrow seems to love to watch over me in a very gentle sense, not a physical sense at all but more like an angel might watch over you. She is with me to the point of being underfoot, and her focus is not on me, but on what is around me. Her eyes and nose scan the horizon constantly. I think, no, I KNOW, that she sees spirits. Strongheart (my dog) is enormous. He is supposed to be a livestock guarding dog, but he is so sociable it's almost laughable. Yet, there is something about his size and quiet, self-confident demeanor that keeps neighborhood dogs from roaming through our pastures on their morning rounds. He has taught me that strength does not mean the biggest teeth (which he has), and the biggest bark (which he has), but in an attitude of self-composure and confidence. Our miniature donkeys teach me about taking time to sort things out. Donkeys never move quickly, except toward a cookie. I, on the other hand, am outrageously impulsive. My donkeys never put themselves in peril. I do all the time. Still, they are patient with me and trust that one of these days, I will "get it." I hope they are right! We got our first horse a few months ago. She is old and creaky, but a real queen. I am reminded through her that old age can be a proud time, and a time of learning to accept the kindness of others. I don't think she believes that anything we offer her is charity. Rather, she conveys to us that our careful tending to her is her due. We are her staff. Animals like her teach me that giving is something one does regardless of the appreciation of the recipient. We give for ourselves, of ourselves. I hope that I give our animals a sense of home, of belonging, of safety. Free of the worries of where the next meal will come from, and where the next night will be spent, our animal companions are free to devote time to reverie and rest. Their lives look like a living meditation. I like to imagine that is true. 

I understand that you are taking part in a conference in July, 200O that will address our spiritual relationship to the animal kingdom. What do you feel is the importance of such an event? 

In our culture, it takes a certain amount of publicity before an idea is allowed to grow. This sounds crass, but it is my experience that it is true. We have a need to be almost over-stimulated with a notion before we will take it in en-mass. I believe that in offering a large conference with top-of-the mark speakers, we can create enough of an "event" atmosphere so that people will sit up and take notice. Animals matter. Our relationships with them matter. Without these relationships we and our world will come to nothing, and all our boundless potential will blow away with the last dry winds. It is time to revisit our lives with animals and with the rest of creation as a way back to our most ancient and sacred home. I really believe that this conference can help us in this important journey.

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