First posted in Bookreporter.com.
“Our Symphony with Animals: On health, empathy, and our shared destinies” by Aysha Akhtar, M.D., is a memoir, an informational text, and a paean to the joys of sharing our lives with animals. Akhtar shares that she was abused as a child. She writes about her childhood dog, Sylvester, whom she loved with all her heart. She also shares that it wasn’t until she finally stood up to a family member who was abusing Sylvester that she was able to stand up to her abuser, as well.
That very personal story comes out slowly, over the course of the whole book. Akhtar ambitiously covers a wide range of animal issues from the lessons learned after Hurricane Katrina about the importance of helping people evacuate with their beloved family pets to serial killers who abuse animals prior to actually killing people. She visits factory farms and is astounded when her tour guide is proud of the facilities that are patently horrifying — pigs who are confined in metal cages where they can’t even turn around for years and years and who hit their heads against the bars, having gone crazy from the confinement. Imagine being locked in a cage without enough room to turn around for years. Pigs are more intelligent than dogs, yet we’d never consider doing that to a dog.
Akhtar shares stories of children who raise cows for Future Farmers of America (FFA) and who love and nurture their animals only to have them sold, usually for slaughter, at the end of the program. Alena’s story is heartbreaking, and it becomes apparent that to create the farmers of tomorrow, it’s important to desensitize the children of today. And how better to desensitize them than to have them raise an animal and sell it to be killed.
The main theme of the book and the stories that Akhtar tells are about empathy and the relationships between people and the animals they love. Akhtar gives us story after story, each of which demonstrates that animals can break down walls we build around ourselves to protect us after traumatic experiences: veterans who suffer from PTSD and get service dogs can live their lives again, dogs help children through difficult times like testifying at court, dogs and cats and other animals help prisoners regain a sense of accomplishment and dignity, and more. In addition to the anecdotal, Akhtar provides science that makes every presentation much more than just a story. For example, “Studies on those with PTSD find that a variety of animals, including pigs, sheep, chickens, opossums, horses, dogs and cats, reduce depression and PTSD severity.” Not only were patients able to reduce medications, but there was also an 82% reduction in symptoms. The VA is studying the effects animals have on soldiers’ mental health.
While the topics and examples in the book are far-reaching, Akhtar keeps things connected with the continuing flashbacks and stories of her childhood dog, Sylvester, and the abuse from her uncle. The effect is that while she’s telling us this compelling story about her young life, she’s also sharing important information about animals and how they help us in many, many different ways. Some of the information is hard to read. Akhtar discusses the ASPCA’s collaboration with the NYPD to investigate animal cruelty and gives examples of cases they worked on. Reading about starved animals and raccoons left to die in traps is horrifying. So is learning about the Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane and the mistreatment of the prisoners.
On her website, Akhtar says, “I am on a mission to show how treating animals with kindness is not only good for animals, but also good for us.” That’s exactly what her book explains and demonstrates in full.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, Pegasus Books, for review purposes.