The Earthfire Bear Gardens: Reconnection Ecology & Animal-Driven Design

In an idyllic haven of carefully preserved native land nestled among the Grand Teton Mountains lies The Earthfire Institute, an animal sanctuary founded in 1998 by conservationists Dr. Susan Eirich and Jean Simpson. Their mission: “To reawaken our deep connection to wildlife and nature through Reconnection Ecology, expanding our sense of community to include all living beings and moving us to protect thriving habitats for all life.” Since the Institute’s founding, the two have worked 24/7, building each structure by hand and staying focused on their path to “place Earthfire Institute at the forefront of an experiential, creative, and joyful approach to Life that expands our sense of community to include all the incredible beings we live with on our Earth.”

Susan “wasn’t exactly searching for a life-changing event” before founding Earthfire. “I was happy with my life,” she recalls, “absorbed by my career as a psychologist and periodically taking time off to explore other cultures around the world.” That was until Jean Simpson, a professional animal handler, asked Susan if she wanted to help him raise a litter of wolf puppies he was working with for a Disney film.

“That was the end of life as I knew it and the beginning of my lifelong commitment to connecting humans with wild animals,” Susan says.

Today, Earthfire cares for dozens of animal species, raising and rehabilitating domesticated wildlife that could not otherwise survive in the wild. “Some were kept as pets, some came from fur or meat farms, and others were surrendered.” Earthfire’s animals serve as emissaries for their species, allowing an incredibly unique opportunity for all who interact with them to deeply connect with and understand the mission of Earthfire and the principles of Reconnection Ecology.

Susan describes Reconnection Ecology as “the practice of awakening our bonds to nature in order to spur both individual and collective change. Research tells us that meaningful experiences in nature can lead to profound changes in our worldview and behaviors. If we open ourselves to connecting deeply with the natural world, including with other species, those experiences can transform us—not just intellectually, but also emotionally, philosophically, even spiritually.”

Some of these diverse animals that help Susan and the Earthfire team in their mission of reconnection are the Institute’s bears, seen here playing freely in the on-site waterfalls, and ranging in species from Hokkaido Bears from Japan to Brown Bears, more commonly recognizable in North America.

The Epsten Group, in partnership with Ursa International, was honored when given the opportunity to help design a sustainable and “bear-driven” habitat for these unique animals. Epsten’s Zoo Design Specialist Olu Oshinubi is eagerly “looking forward to collaborating with Earthfire on this incredibly unique facility.”

The bear gardens at Earthfire will be special in many ways, but one of the most principal is their shift away from a center on visitor experience, as many zoos must prioritize, to a bear-driven focus on animal wellbeing. Earthfire only allows scheduled, small groups of visitors to tour the facility, carefully selected by the caretakers to ensure the best possible environment for animal comfort as well as a deep connection to the Institute’s mission.

“The irony of it is,” Susan says, “that if we design it for the bears, the humans will have a better experience. We often make a mistake of being too human-centric; we deprive ourselves of the thing we really need, which is that true, profound connection to the animals.”

The new bear gardens will give each bear the chance to do what bears do most naturally—from foraging for native plants and berries, to climbing to a high point to see the land around them, to cooling off and playing in their own freshwater pool before taking a rest in their sheltered den. “Our collaborative goal is to give the bears the safety and care of sanctuary life with the richness and diversity of life in the wild, allowing visitors and supporters—whether in person or through photos and videos—a chance to connect personally and intimately with each unique bear and experience the power of Reconnection Ecology.”

Within the new facilities of the bear gardens and far beyond, Earthfire continues to advocate for the care and conservation of the delicate ecosystems of our beautiful natural world: a mission that all began with two passionate individuals’ love for a litter of wolf pups, from one of which, the Institute borrowed its name:

“She emanated the quality of Earth Mother, with the sense of a fire in her belly to protect anything vulnerable.

Earthfire: a fitting name that symbolized what we set out to accomplish on our land.”


The Epsten Group is honored and excited to continue our work with Earthfire as we learn from and steward their mission to better connect humans with our environment through conservation and animal welfare. To learn more about our sustainable zoo design and planning services, reach out to us here, and to learn more about Earthfire and the imperative work they do every day, visit their website.

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