Aysha Akhtar on
Our Symphony With Animals by Julie Peterson
s a neurologist, Dr. Aysha Akhtar wanted to acknowledge that medicine has largely overlooked our relationships with animals and their impact on our health. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and bullying, she gained strength and courage to change her situation after forming a deep bond with an abused dog. She found there were more stories like hers that explain how the health and happiness of humans and animals are interlaced. After traveling to interview people whose lives have been profoundly influenced by animals, Akhtar used her experiences and those of others to demonstrate the science behind the intricate and mutually beneficial associations between humans and animals. The result is her book, Our Symphony with Animals:
On Health, Empathy, and Our Shared Destinies. After time spent with homeless people, a former mobster, a Marine veteran, a serial killer, animal sanctuary workers and farmers, she relates what happens when people forge (or break) bonds with animals, and how the love we give them comes full circle back to us.
How do you explain that an untrained animal, like Sylvester, the abused dog you bonded with, can help a person heal and recover?
It’s the fact that the animal is not a human being. Animals help diffuse the human-generated pressure in our lives. If you treat an animal with kindness, that
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is the only thing that the animal will judge you by. Animals don’t care about your past, your money, your mistakes in life— they have no preconceived notions about you. Animals have a purity that helps us be our true selves without worrying about being judged.
What is the most memorable moment of your journey to discover more stories like your own?
It was a beautiful, warm, summer evening, and I was just sitting at an animal sanctuary with a pig named Ivy. She was such a sweet girl and such an emotional being, she reminded me of Sylvester. While Ivy was sleeping, I was listening to the sounds around me—ducks, chickens, cows, horses, dogs and nature. The sun was setting. I became immersed in the moment and felt a profound sense of connectedness. All the sounds came together for me like a Mozart symphony. I had never felt that kind of peace. It was beautiful.
What is the science behind the neurological and biological phenomena you describe in this interaction between humans and animals? First, studies are emerging that suggest that the way we feel empathy toward each other is not very different from the way we feel empathy toward other animals. It
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