"Our Symphony with Animals" Emphasizes Shared Destinies

An Interview with Dr. Aysha Akhtar, author of "Our Symphony with Animals."

Posted May 10, 2019

"Deftly combining medicine, social history and personal experience, Our Symphony with Animals is the first book by a physician to show how deeply the well-being of humans and animals are entwined. Interwoven throughout is Dr. Akhtar’s own story of being a young girl who was bullied in school and sexually abused by her uncle. Feeling abandoned by humanity, it was only when she met Sylvester, a dog who had also been abused, that she found strength for both of them."

A few months ago, I was asked to write an endorsement for neurologist and animal ethicist Dr. Aysha Akhtar's forthcoming book called Our Symphony with Animals: On Health, Empathy, and Our Shared Destinies. I was extremely busy and almost said, "No, I just don't have the time." I'm glad I began reading through it and realized as the afternoon turned to evening that I'd been reading for a few hours without moving off my couch. I then said, "Sure I can," and my endorsement read, “In her deeply personal and highly readable book, full of stories that surely will move readers all over the place, Dr. Aysha Akhtar seamlessly weaves humorous and touching moments along with the latest research on animal-human relationships. She shows why the development of close relationships with other animals that are filled with trust, respect, compassion, empathy, and love are mutually beneficial and a win-win for all. Highly recommended for a global audience.”

Now that Dr. Akhtar's book has been published, I'm thrilled that she could take the time to answer a few questions about her landmark work. Our interview went as follows. 

Why did you write Our Symphony with Animals?

In 1946, the World Health Organization defined health as more than just the absence of disease, but a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.” In other words, health draws from every aspect of our lives—not just as individuals, but collectively. 

Aysha Akhtar
Source: Aysha Akhtar

As a doctor, I think about health like this: Each of us is like a connect-the-dot picture. In order to draw the right picture of health, we need to: (a) include the relevant dots that make up our lives, and (b) connect the dots in the correct way. Each dot in our lives influences our physical, mental, and social well-being. We now recognize that how we interact with and treat one another, how we share (or do not share) our resources, how we relate to our environment, how we shelter ourselves, how we govern ourselves, how we spend money, how we eat, how we work, how we play—in short, how we live—influence our health. 

Despite recognizing this, medicine still largely overlooks one crucial influence that has existed since our beginning: our relationships with animals. I always felt that by not considering our relationships with animals—and not just our companion animals, but all animals as a whole—medicine was missing a vital component of our health. I wanted to change this. 

How does your book follow up on your interests in the lives of other animals and the nature and study of nonhuman-human relationships?

I love, love, love animals. I appreciate them so much for helping me step away from my human-centric life and helping me experience the beauty and joys in our world. Animals contribute to our own well-being in ways we are just starting to realize. And we are recognizing that we as a species don’t live in a vacuum. How we live affects all other life on this planet. And that, in turn, affects us. 

I wanted to delve deeply on just how integrated our lives are with the lives of other animals. The book is mostly stories with medicine, social science, and history woven in. 

This book was five years in the making. I traveled around the country meeting and interviewing people whose lives have, in some profound way, been influenced by animals. It was quite a journey! I ended up sitting across from a serial killer, doing a four-day ride-along with the New York Police Department, having coffee with an ex-mobster, visiting factory farms, traveling to one of the most notorious penal institutions in American history, and hanging out with a rescued pig. I was constantly surprised by the stories I found. 

Your subtitle caught my eye and made me think about these and other topics before I even read your book. How and why did you come up with it and how does it relate to the deeply personal nature of your most welcomed and courageous book? 

As a child, I had a profound relationship with a dog, named Sylvester. I was nine years old when my grandparents, living next door, adopted Sylvester as a puppy. You have to understand, this was a big deal! My family is from Pakistan and it was unheard of back then for Pakistanis to have companion animals. Sylvester was the first animal I ever knew, and we instantly fell in love with each other. He was truly my very best friend. Sylvester saved me in a way I never would have predicted. At the time, I was being sexually abused by an uncle. And, unfortunately, another uncle of mine was physically abusing Sylvester. I was so devastated by Sylvester’s abuse and at some level, I think I saw how his abuse wasn’t very different from mine—all forms of abuse share a commonality. They hide behind silence. They unmask through voice. Eventually, my empathy and love for Sylvester gave me the courage to speak out and end not only his abuse, but mine as well. 

Ever since Sylvester, I have always had animals in my life. I have a great sense of empathy for them. I know that many people have stories like mine. The human species feels an inherent kinship with and empathy for other animals. Now, as a neurologist, I wanted to explore where that empathy for other animals comes from and how does it affect our well-being. I know how it affected my well-being on a personal level, and I wanted to explore it on a professional level as well. 

What are some of your major messages?

Our destinies are shared with that of other animals, even with the animals whose lives are hidden from our view. When we treat animals with kindness, not only do they benefit but so do we. 

How does caring for other animals spill over into caring for humans and why is it important for people to understand this relationship and to extend their empathy to all beings?

It is the same mindset that encourages cruelty toward animals and toward other humans and to view this cruelty as normal.  Normalcy need not hold us prisoner, though. We can free ourselves to recognize that humans and animals largely share the same struggle—the need for safety, comfort, and a gentle hand. The good news is that the solution to our struggles is the same. Empathy for animals is the natural, inevitable extension of our empathy for each other. 

What are some of your current projects?

I’m looking at how we can accelerate the development of more effective, human-based testing methods that will replace animal experimentation. I’m working with a team of other scientists. Replacing ineffective animal testing is a win-win for both humans and animals. I truly believe this is going to be the next big revolution in science. 

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

Please feel free to contact me! I love hearing from readers. You can contact me on my website, www.ayshaakhtar.com.

Thank you, Aysha, for a rich and moving interview. Your courage is a wonderful model for others to follow, and I hope your book receives a broad global audience because I'm sure there are many others who have similar stories to tell. Jonathan Balcombe's endorsement says it all: “This is a superb, captivating book. Combining memoir, investigative journalism, and science, Aysha Akhtar has produced a marvelous exploration of our troubled, evolving relationship with animals. Themes of vulnerability, injustice, redemption, and love are woven into a moving narrative that drew me in and kept me hungrily turning the pages.” Good luck with your future projects.