“Doctors Can and Should Care About Anyone’s Suffering:” an Interview With Dr. Aysha Akhtar

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Ahead of the DC VegFest, we had the opportunity to chat with one of the festival’s Main Stage speakers, Dr. Aysha Akhtar. A leader in both animal rights and neurology, Dr. Akhtar’s brand new book Our Symphony with Animals: On Health, Empathy, and Our Shared Destinies beautifully examines the deep personal connections we have with animals and how that influences our world—and our individual selves.

To learn even more about Dr. Akhtar’s own experience cultivating empathy for animals and more about her work, join us at the DC VegFest at Nats Park in the nation’s capital on Sunday, August 11, 2019.

You’re a neurologist and a public health specialist. So which came first, your veganism or your interest in medicine? How are those related? 

Medicine came early on. I was a child when I kind of knew I wanted to be a doctor, and I think part of it was because I spent a lot of time rescuing animals and trying to nurse them back to health. I would rescue birds who were abandoned, or other injured animals, and rush them to the animal hospital. I just felt a strong compassion for animals and caring for them taught me how to care for humans as well. It made sense that I would go into healthcare. The thing was that a lot of people assumed I would go into veterinary medicine, but I intentionally decided on human healthcare in part because I felt we needed strong human physicians who are also advocates for animals. And you know, there aren’t many. There were certainly fewer physicians who also cared about animals when I made that decision. I wanted to heal humans but I also wanted to be an advocate for animals and I felt this was the way I could do both really well. There has always been a stigma on doctors who care about animals, as though we don’t care about humans–and I’m trying to change that image. I’m here to say: “No, doctors can and should care about anyone’s suffering.”

So what was your vegan journey? What prompted you to stop eating animals?

I was in high school when my younger sister thought she was sending away for an environmental magazine. But basically, it was a magazine from PETA and there was one story in the magazine about a “downed” cow. This is a cow who was considered too sick to be turned into meat. Of course many are, but this cow was even sicker than the average cow. It was just a story of how this one cow was treated, and she was just brutalized and it was just horrendous. So my sister read it, then gave it to me, my mom, and my other sister, and it was just a shock. We never once thought about our food. We ate meat all our lives. So we looked to our cat who we loved, and we realized that there really ultimately was no difference between our cats and these cows. That evening my mom came down to the kitchen table at dinner time and she said “that’s it, from now on I’m no longer serving meat in this house.” And the whole family agreed, so we became vegetarian and then later on vegan together.

Your previous book, Animals and Public Health, addresses the link between human health and how we treat animals. How does your new book, Our Symphony with Animals expand on that?

The previous book is really more of an academic book. It’s heavy into the arguments and the evidence. There are almost as many pages of references as there are in the actual book itself, and that covers a wide spectrum of issues where human health intersects with how we treat animals and with animal wellbeing. This next book is different in that, first of all it’s not an academic book, it’s geared towards the average reader and it’s told a lot more through stories. So it’s framed through stories with the science and the medicine and the information woven in. I think that ultimately, people are more touched, more affected, and more influenced by stories than by facts. Although I felt the need to include the facts, I also knew that stories help people to see an issue in a new light in the way that facts do not.

When it comes to health and animal sentience, the science clearly backs up your argument in the book. So why isn’t this common knowledge in the medical community?

Honestly part of it is that the medical community is just like everyone else out there. They are probably wearing clothes made from animals, they’re eating animals. Whether they mean to or not, their lives are in some way causing harm to animals. And I think that just like with the public–with the average person–it’s hard to recognize when you are doing something that may not be quite as kind or as ethical as it could be. It’s no different with doctors.

In a similar vein, in an excerpt of the book you describe a trip to an egg factory farm. You react to the horrors very strongly, but it seemed as if your companions really thought that their welfare standards were enough. How do you make sense of that cognitive dissonance?

I think it comes down to what people come to see as normal. With the Dean of the agricultural school, I’m sure that she wasn’t an animal lover one day and the next day walked into a factory farm and said “oh, this is great!” It was a gradual process for her where she was slowly desensitized over the course of her career and had been taught to see animals as things and as objects solely for human use. So for those of us who are not in that business, have not been desensitized over many years, it truly is a shock when you walk in to one of these places, because it’s so hard to believe that anyone could see this as normal. People have come to see all kinds of atrocities as normal if it’s brought in gradually. And unfortunately that’s how we get to the state where we treat other humans so cruelly, too. It’s not that one day we think oh, we want to hurt this nation of people, it’s a gradual desensitization that’s happening. And you know, I guess that’s the only way I can explain how this woman, the Dean, was able to see this as not only normal, but as an exemplary example of animal welfare.

I will also add that I’ve watched videos of factory farms many times, but it’s a very different experience being physically in one of these places. Your whole body reacts—all of your senses are affronted. Your sense of smell, taste, touch, sound; your body tells you that this is wrong, this is so wrong what’s happening here.

So what is the best step people can take to protect their health and animals?

Our welfare is completely tied with that of animals, and we’re seeing that more and more. We’re seeing how with the climate crisis we’re starting to recognize that what we do to animals does come back to hurt us. So when we put animals in these factory farms that aggravate the climate crisis– the factory farms poison our water, pollute our air, our land– all of that comes back to cause health problems for us as well. It’s the same thing when we cause the extinction of species by overusing the land and encroaching upon the few wild places that exist today. That causes ecological unraveling that then leads to increases in mosquito-borne diseases like the Zika virus. So what we do to animals really does have very direct and indirect effects on our well-being.

You’re speaking at this year’s DC VegFest–can you give us a small preview of what you plan to talk about there? 

It’s going to be a summary of what’s in the book and the inspiration behind the book. I’m going to talk a little bit about how I first recognized how empathy for animals was so vital for my life. When I was a child I was being sexually abused by an uncle for many years and then my grandparents moved next door and adopted a dog named Sylvester who was the love of my life. We just loved each other. Unfortunately, I came upon Sylvester being abused by another uncle–he was being physically abused, thrown against the wall–and that continued for quite some time. Ultimately, what happened was that I eventually got the courage to speak up and end Sylvester’s abuse. And that led me to having the courage to stand up and end my own abuse. I think that at some level I recognized that Sylvester and I shared the same struggle. I recognized that his fight was my fight. We shared the same vulnerability. Ultimately, it was my empathy for Sylvester that profoundly changed my life for the better.

And now as a neurologist I wanted to explore how this empathy for animals affects all of us–not just as individuals but collectively as a society. What do we gain when we embrace empathy for animals and what do we lose when we don’t? And so I spent five years traveling around the country and meeting people whose lives were impacted by their relationships with animals. What I plan to show is just how intricately our lives are woven with the lives of other animals and to show how we can increase human empathy for animals.

My book is especially geared for the people who love their dogs and cats but don’t really think too much about the other animals. They don’t think about where their food is coming from, or the clothes they’re wearing, and so it’s really geared towards them to sort of gently bring them in by showing them that deep bond we have with many of our companion animals and what an enormous benefit that bond can have for us. And then to gradually bring them in to start thinking about the other animals as well.

Aysha Akhtar, M.D., M.P.H., is a neurologist and public health specialist and is on a mission to show that what’s good for animals is also good for humans!

She is the author of the new book, “Our Symphony With Animals. On Health, Empathy and Our Shared Destinies.” Combining medicine, social sciences, and stories, her book explores how deeply the well-being of humans and animals are entwined. The book shows how humanity’s compassion for animals is the next step in our species’ moral evolution.

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