Animal Medicine is most commonly identified with totems. In Alaska, for example, there are huge poles with carvings on animals upon them. Wrongly called "animism" by sociologists who considered this animal worship of primitive cultures, Animal Medicine is no more primitive than Asian societies that have developed whole schools of self defense based on the study of animals and their behaviors.

In the realm of the spiritual, to connect with the powers of animals is no less revered than lighting a candle to or for an ancestor, as many cultures (including Buddhism) practice. Simply put, animal medicine is the belief that animals possess traits that are embodied within their spirits. As in the days of old, today's practitioner will observe animals and be open to that which the animal portends. The appearance of an animal helps us to be wary or aware of things to come, are guides to decision, action or contemplation and are often a source of true spiritual power given by the animal itself.

Native Americans were not the only people to observe nature and its patterns as well as those of animals. All tribal people from the Celts onward relied heavily on the signs within nature and animals. These enabled them to prepare for cold months and sowing for harvesting later in the year. It is no wonder that nature and animals became such an integral part of tribal and nomadic societies and their survival.

I did not always live in the country but, even in the country where wildlife can be so abundant, the message of the animal people are of no less significance. Although I may hear a hoot owl every morning, to see one would enable me to prepare for possible deception and in so doing, keep my own counsel for the time being in all matters. We have a wonderful array of birds, especially cardinals and hummingbirds. These have always been among my favorite birds so I feel blessed to have them on our property. Good medicine, as Native Americans would say. We have streams and a pond and have always had frogs, toads and salamanders but this year our pond is rich with a huge population of bullfrogs. This is excellent medicine for cleansing. You see frogs call in the rain and the rain, from Creator itself and is cleansing for the soul. After a long, despairing winter of grief following the loss of my mother, these frogs and the rain they bring are cleansing to my grief and purifying me to move forward. Such is frog medicine.

To walk a path of Animal Medicine is to follow a path of total regard for all animal people, for that is what Native Americans call animals, rocks, trees and plants- people. They call them thus because within each is the spirit power breathed into them all by Creator. During the hot weather, I am always on the look out for the stray frog or salamander that may have wandered too far from the stream or pond bed. When I find them, I pick them up and bring them closer to a water source. My daughter and I rescue earthworms! After a storm when they are high-grounded and may die as the sun comes up, we rescue them as well for all is a circle and all life is to be revered. Some days, I am very busy! Of course, we feed the birds, deer and hummingbirds. Next year, I plan to grow a vegetable garden and if some hungry animal comes a munching, let it. It could be a new totem animal and if so, I must feed its spirit.

As a writer, I have special reverence for spiders. You see spiders represent creation and creativity so when I see spiders, I welcome them. In our house, no insect is killed. Spiders are brought outside and even bats (that have gotten in from time to time) are gently caught and set free outside. Once, a visiting aunt saw an ant. Before she could step on it, I shouted, "No!" Don't kill it!" She asked why. I told her they come every year to bring me a message and if one is killed, they will over run my house completely. You see, the ant represents industry, endurance and strength. Those who know me very well know that these traits apply to me. I am a Taurus so you can imagine what this bull can do! But, my friends the ants come around every spring to reassess my efforts. When they begin to come around, they are reminding me to look at my industry. Have I been doing too much (again) as I am prone to do. Have I been paying enough attention to my creative work and if not, get back to it no matter what. This spring, for example, in order for me to meet industry goals my ants were reminding me about I had to begin getting up at 4:30am. This was the only way to begin my day in meditation and prayer, to water my garden, do farming chores and to work on my writing. Once I began to do this, they went away (until next spring). By the way when they left, the books I had been working were accepted by a publisher and will be published this year. So, they also tell me if I will reap the fruits of my labors.

Many animals are obvious in the messages they bring. Butterflies represent transformation. Snakes also represent transformation but, because they also represent renewal, they are also the medicine of healers. When my daughter's snake sheds, she always brings me the skin. I know how to use the snakeskin to tap into the healing powers of the snake and use it successfully in liniments, spiritual baths for the sick and in candle magic. I remember my mom tying snakeskin around her neck as she did chores around the house. She said it helped her arthritis.
This year, beetles are around me. It has been a few years since I last saw them. Although also an insect of transformation, because of the many stages to adulthood, the beetle asks where are you in the process of change itself? Do you need to undergo change? Do you need to renew a part of your life such as going back to something you used to do when you were younger? Do you, on the other hand, need to leave the past behind in order to transform and move forward? In my case, it is the latter. As part of my grieving process this last year, I kept revisiting the past. This is common but my old friend the beetle is telling me to push past that for the past cannot be undone and only the new can transform.

What is odd about the beetles this time around is that they are showing up dead. Shamanism is not just for the spirit realm of people; it is also for the spirit realm of animals. When an animal dies within your proximity, it is a sacrifice the animal made to impart its special power. In this case, it is the power to transform, regenerate and in so doing, move forward. As I see these dead beetles on my porch and even in my house, I thank them for the medicine they have given me and, in so doing, empower them more in animal heaven. Once I found a dead cardinal on my lawn. Cardinals are as ferocious as they are beautiful and I knew this cardinal was giving me the skills for what was to come. When birds die, one must pull the tail feathers or they become earthbound, unable to fly to Creator. When I found this cardinal, I pulled the tail feathers which I kept for medicine work. By using these feathers, the spirit of the cardinal is strengthened in animal heaven and its sacrifice is not wasted. I did a special ceremony with sage, tobacco and cornmeal to commemorate this cardinal's sacrifice on my behalf. In the years that followed, I came to understand what I had been prepared for-death. I lost so many people, one after another, in a short period of time I was in an emotional and mental tailspin. Cardinal had given me what I would need: ferocity of spirit to survive my grief. One never knows why an animal gives a gift. Often, it is only with time that such things become clear and that is where one's truth comes in. It is also truth that you do not have to live in the country like I do to travel the path of animal medicine.
My path began in Brooklyn, New York for example. Here I was, in the middle of the city when the animals first called me spiritually. It was through meditation that I began to commune with the spirit of animals. I was able to achieve such a deep state of meditation that my spirit actually traveled astrally and swam with dolphins. It was truly amazing. I made it a point of walking through parks as often as I could. There was no animal, no matter how "common" with whom I did not commune.

Everyone has animal totems. The easiest way to begin to guess at what they are is to look at the animals with whom you have an affinity, often from childhood. There are totems that come and go, based on need and based on lessons to be learned. There are totems for life, totems that rule your dreamtime and guide you on your life path.
As for the sociologists that call this animal worship of a primitive nature I say keep your narrow-mindedness-the truest form of primitive thought.

For further study, read "Animal Speak" by Ted Andrews
Cate has been a radio commentator, columnist and essayist in New York. Feel free to visit her website: or e mail her directly at:

Author's Bio: 

Cate Cavanagh has been a radio commentator, advocate, case manager and facilitator in the field of developmental disabilities. She is a published poet, columnist and author. Her new books, "Her Godmother" and "Grief Dance" will be released this year. Cate's first book, "Gifts Of The Spirit" continues to receive rave reviews.