An interview with Dr. Aysha Akhtar

Interview by Kelly Cronin

Who is your biggest writing inspiration? In your field of work?

That’s easy–Carl Sagan. The only time I ever skipped class in high school was to hear Sagan give a talk! That’s how much of a nerd I was (and am still). I grew up worshipping his writing. He had an amazing way of distilling complex scientific information that was not just easy to read, but also enjoyable. He was also an advocate of environmental protection, human rights, and animal protection. He used his scientific knowledge to help improve our world. I greatly admire that.

In my own field of medicine, I love the writings of Oliver Sacks, who was a neurologist like myself. Sacks wrote beautifully and with compassion about so many of the same neurological conditions I have seen in my own patients.

You come across an eclectic group of people in the book. What interaction stands out the most to you?

Of course Keith Jesperson is unique. Most of us–this really needs no explaining–would prefer to avoid serial killers! But what stands out about Jesperson is that he showed surprising moments of empathy. When he told me he couldn’t hunt deer anymore after he heard a deer cry for hours in pain, I was utterly shocked. It intrigued me to probe further: how can a person who demonstrated such cruelty also show moments of humanity? What in his life led to this duality?

A person I really enjoyed meeting is David Lee, the social worker at Lima State Penitentiary who started the first animal therapy program in a US prison in the 1970’s. He was such a joy to meet! Dave is a jolly, humble fellow. And yet his program started a hugely successful prison reform movement in the US.

Lastly, the young girl, Alena Hidalgo, who I write about in the book’s final chapter remind me so much of myself when I was a girl. Her classmates and teachers bullied her for wanting to save a pig she dearly loved. And yet, she had the courage to fight their bullying and became a stronger person for it. I like to think that she and I would have been great friends if we had been classmates.

What was your inspiration for the title?

I was sitting in the grass one evening at the Rowdy Girl sanctuary, which is covered in my last chapter, and listening to everyone settling down for the night. Renee and her husband Tommy were laughing over a joke they shared. The cows were mooing, the horses neighing, the ducks quacking. Ivy the pig, lying next to me, was snuffling in her sleep. Together, all the sounds of contented, rescued animals and of humans made a beautiful symphony. It reminded me of the symphonies that Mozart composed and how they move me with their beauty. That night, as I sat there at the sanctuary listening to this “symphony” around me, I felt a tremendous sense of peace and well-being. Our symphony with animals that night gave me hope for human kindness.

Can you further explain this quote from the book: “All forms of abuse share a commonality. They hide behind silence. They unmask through voice.”

My Uncle Dave was able to abuse Sylvester for many months because no one, including me, spoke out about it. I stayed silent for a long time. Uncle Talup abused me for many years because I stayed silent. I didn’t tell anyone what Uncle Talup was doing to me, not my parents, not my siblings. As long as no one spoke out, both Sylvester’s and my abuse continued. Sylvester’s abuse didn’t stop until I finally mustered the courage to confront Dave and tell him that if he continued harming Sylvester, I would tell others. Likewise, it was only when I uttered two crucial words to Talup–the only words of protest I ever uttered to him–that he stopped abusing me. All forms of abuse–whether to humans or animals– will continue as long as no one speaks out against them.

What part of the book was the most challenging for you to write? What has been the most rewarding?

Writing about cruelty to animals is hard. Not just because it is difficult personally, but also because I did not want this to be a depressing book. I think I achieved that by sharing with readers the moments of humor I encountered and focusing, ultimately, on the positives of our relationships with animals. But I couldn’t ignore the issue of cruelty to animals. It is a topic that needs to be examined because animal cruelty does impact our well-being as well. It was especially difficult to write about cruelty toward the animals who are still largely beneath most people’s radar. That is, it’s easy to write about dogs. Americans love dogs. But how do I help readers think about other animals with compassion? How do I drum up empathy for chickens and pigs? That was a real challenge.

You discuss the relationship between you and your childhood companion Sylvester, a family dog who also suffered abuse. How did Sylvester give you the strength to continue on and grow from your past experiences? Did he have a major part of why you wrote the book?

Sylvester saved me, and that’s not hyperbole. Looking back, I now know that it was my love and empathy for Sylvester that gave me the courage to not only end his abuse, but also mine. Although we were abused in different ways, at some level– even as a child–I recognized how our struggles were the same. His fight was mine and my fight was his. When I finally drummed up the courage to speak out against Sylvester’s abuse, that led to me having the courage to speak out against my own abuse. This connection between our struggles inspired me to write this book and to explore in a larger way what human struggles have in common with the struggles that animals face.

What is one lesson you hope readers take away from the book?

Empathy for animals is not just good for us, it is vital to our well-being.

What inspired you to write Our Symphony with Animals?

As a doctor, I have often wondered why we physicians don’t explore how human relationships with animals impact our well-being. From the beginning of our existence, human lives have interwoven deeply with that of other animals. And today, our society is increasingly questioning how we treat other animals and looking at animals in a new light. We are recognizing them more as individuals with their own personalities, experiences, and as capable of emotions and thought–and not as machine-like beings functioning off instinct alone. I know from my personal experience how a single animal can change the entire course of a life. So, I thought, why not explore how all animals impact our lives, not just individually, but also collectively? The time is so ripe for this exploration.

About Dr. Aysha Akhtar:

Dr Akhtar is double board-certified in both neurology and preventive medicine and has a master’s degree in public health. She is the Deputy Director of the Army’s Traumatic Brain Injury Program. Previously, she worked for the Office of Counterterrorism and Emerging Threats of the Food and Drug Administration. She is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Public Health Service, in which she deploys to assist with national public health emergencies. She is also a fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and is a consultant editor for The Journal of Animal Ethics. She is the author of Animals and Public Health and lives in Maryland.  Find out more at: