‘Our Symphony with Animals’ Views Uneasy Kinship

A new book asks if cruelty and indifference toward animals leads to the same toward humans.

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"The Peaceable Kingdom" by Edward Hicks.

Dr. Aysha Akhtar is both a neurologist and a preventive medicine specialist. But in her new book, Our Symphony with Animals: On Health, Empathy and Our Shared Destinies, she is chiefly an advocate for biophilia — “the hypothesis that humans naturally connect with nature and animals and that our affinity is rooted in our biology.” Early on, she tells us in the simplest terms how she feels about her fellow nonhuman creatures: “No matter how slimy, how scaly, how smelly, or even how scary, animals matter to me.”

In early chapters, Akhtar describes the mutual benefits that humans and animals reap. Some of the points she makes will be widely accepted by readers — the notion that animals can bring “tactile comfort” to humans, for instance. Who hasn’t grown calm stroking the head of a dog or holding a cat close as it purrs? The status conferred on service animals and emotional-support animals in recent years illustrates society’s growing awareness of the strength of the animal-human bond. Akhtar also writes of medical patients and children from war-ravaged countries who find peace and strength through cross-species interaction.

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Dr. Aysha Akhtar. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur.

A key benefit that humans can receive from animals, says Akhtar, is practice in empathy. She speaks with Jason Haag, a US Marine who served in the war in Afghanistan and subsequently suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Paired with Axel, a German Shepherd, the anxiety-ridden and withdrawn Haag began to experience an emotional reversal. Akhtar cites studies showing that companionship with animals can help release a hormone called oxytocin, which is found in both men and women but is commonly associated with maternal care in new mothers. She also explores the use of animal therapy in correctional facilities to help inspire empathy, responsibility and trust in prisoners. She even speaks with an incarcerated murderer in Indiana who has found a sense of purpose in caring for the many cats brought from animal shelters to his prison facility, where he keeps track of each cat by maintaining a daily log. “These cats are the reason I get up,” he tells her.

In later parts of the book, Akhtar looks at the darker side of the animal-human equation, as she probes instances of animal cruelty, both by individuals and systemically. She rides in a police car with members of NYPD’s Animal Cruelty Investigation Squad, where she observes an officer interrogate the superintendent of an apartment building about a possible crime involving the brutal killing of a trapped raccoon. She also visits chicken and hog farms that crowd animals into foul-smelling, maggot-ridden facilities. She learns that the reality of certain “free range” poultry facilities may be far from the bucolic scene that many egg and fryer consumers visualize.

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One difficulty in assessing animal cruelty is that different jurisdictions have such different regulations. Indeed, statutes define “animal” in diverse ways. New York declares an animal to be “every living creature except a human being.” Texas’ definition: “a domesticated living creature, including any stray or feral cat or dog, and a wild living creature previously captured.”

Certainly the question of animal cruelty, as well as larger issues involving animal rights, are made fuzzy by our inconsistency as to how various animals are treated. The proclamation of the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” can be read not just as political allegory but literally. New York may see every living nonhuman creature as an animal, but few New Yorkers would expect beagles, bats, barnacles and bedbugs to be treated in identical ways.

Perhaps Akhtar does. She challenges readers to consider our inconsistencies and situational arbitrariness in our attitudes and behavior toward our fellow creatures. Take, for instance, this observation:

If a woman intentionally poisons her friend’s cat because her friend angered her, she could find herself behind bars for two years. If, though, she poisons a cat in the name of research in a laboratory, she’s protected.

Akhtar also lets us see her own far-reaching thoughts on violence toward animals:

By eating animals, experimenting on them, and wearing them, we have embedded the practice of violence into our everyday routines. With our tax dollars, our purchases, and our appetites, we have told our governments and businesses to go ahead and hurt animals. We’ll just look the other way.

Certainly, the author may lose the sympathies of some people here — those who feel that they’re not necessarily “violent” just because they own a leather belt or eat a tuna sandwich. When she writes about “stripping animals of their being-ness,” some eyes may roll. But she goes there, and I found something admirable about her doing so. She’s clearly not afraid of being called a bleeding heart.

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On the other hand, there are some difficulties in the book, some of them significant ones. Akhtar chooses to take a very personal approach in some chapters, illustrating her points with some harrowing material from her own life. Running through the book is the story of her childhood sexual molestation by a family friend and the solace she found through a dog named Sylvester — an animal who was physically abused by her uncle. It’s strong stuff and relevant to her thesis, but perhaps it would have worked better as a freestanding narrative or, if included in the book, related in one long chapter instead of in short installments. As is, the story threatens to upstage some of the other points she makes.

And then there’s the very frustrating chapter in which Akhtar tries to prove that young people who are violent toward animals may later channel that violence into criminality toward other people. She has accumulated some evidence from studies that such a connection exists. But she decides, in part against her own better judgment, to interview a serial killer in an Oregon prison, grilling him about his life and, in particular, his experience with animal abuse during his younger years. The prisoner makes sexually provocative or otherwise inappropriate comments toward Akhtar in written correspondence, on the phone and in person. He abruptly refuses to speak further with her, causing her to implore him to continue. The whole endeavor is nightmarish, and it’s clear that he’s not exactly a reliable narrator of his own life story, including remembrances of his treatment of animals in his youth. Why she has chosen to share the ordeal with readers in such detail is maddeningly unclear.

Still, Akhtar’s hunch that cruelty and indifference toward animals leads to similar violence and indifference toward human beings feels worthy enough to pursue if we should broaden the context. Would we be maybe more insistent about treating refugees on the border with Mexico more humanely if we insisted on treating helpless livestock more humanely? If we have such an important bond with nonhuman creatures, then why is calling someone an “animal” considered a vile insult?

Akhtar has a strong optimistic streak. She considers the possibility that our empathy toward animals may actually be growing stronger. “The mental convolutions we go through to anesthetize our empathy for animals isn’t a reason for dismay,” she declares, adding:

It’s a reason for hope. Our compassion is so strong that we have to go to great lengths to override it. These convolutions want to right themselves. To make us ask if there is another way.