"When I was 5 years old, my uncle who lived next door started sexually abusing me. Then, when I was 9 years old, my grandparents, who also lived next door, adopted a dog named Sylvester. Sylvester and I just fell absolutely in love with each other."
Dr. Aysha Akhtar's new book is called "Our Symphony With Animals: On Health, Empathy, and Our Shared Destinies." In the book she recounts her personal experience with animals, and how they've affected and improved her own health.
Once she discovered her uncle abusing Sylvester, she says, she found a new courage, a new voice. Sylvester gave her the ability to speak up for both of them and stop the abuse.
"Sylvester's abuse upset me far more, because I think I saw that no matter how powerless I was, Sylvester was even more so," she explained. "And ultimately it was my love and empathy for Sylvester that gave me the courage to speak up, and end Sylvester's abuse. And that led me to speaking up and ending my abuse."
Aysha has gone on in her life to become a powerful advocate for animals and to research how animals' health affects our own.
"Many people will suddenly find this bond with animals during stressful or traumatic times for them," she said.
In her book she describes conversations with people who have terminal illnesses, PTSD, physical trauma and other crushing life challenges. People who found the inspiration and energy they needed through their connection with animals.
Animals can change people — people like the notorious mobster James Giuliani.
"James worked for the Gambino family. He was a mobster for them. And he lived a life of complete selfishness, a life of violence," Aysha said. "He had no interest in animals, he would call them dirty nuisances. He saw no need for animals.
"Then one day he came across an abused dog, and the fact that this dog was so abused just enraged James Giuliani, and that awoke that kernel of empathy that was always deep within James."
Giuliani's life changed profoundly after meeting that abused dog.
He now devotes his life to rescuing and saving animals, and he goes around the country teaching children and others kindness for animals.
Aysha says improving the lives of animals improves our own lives. Upgrading the conditions of factory farms, reducing bacteria in our diets, lessening the carbon imprint of industrial food production and reducing the animal products we consume is the best path for animal health, and for our own.
"One of the single most important things we can do is cut back on eating animals," she said. "You will be healthier for it. You will have far less risk of a stroke. You will lose weight. You will help reduce the risk of climate change. So, I think if we really truly do care about reducing violence and reducing suffering in animals, we have to look at what we're eating."
Aysha's message is simple and strong. When we save animals, we save ourselves.
The title of the book came from a sanctuary in Texas started by a cattle rancher and his wife. They created the first-ever animal sanctuary from a former cattle ranch. Aysha said an experience there moved her.
"I was sitting in the sanctuary, and it was evening. I was listening to Ivy, who was a rescued pig. She was snuffling as she was snorting in her sleep. She was very content.
"I could hear the chickens clucking. I could hear the rooster calling. I could hear the horses neighing, the cows mooing, the dogs barking. Sounds basically of contented animals. These were animals who were not going to suffer. I was also hearing the chuckling of Rene and Tommy, who own the sanctuary. It was the symphony of humans and animals living in harmony together. It reminded me how beautiful humans can be, and the kind of beauty we can create in this world."
Dr. Aysha Akhtar is a neurologist, a public health specialist and a commander in the Public Health Service Commission in the U.S. Department of Health. Her new book is called "Our Symphony With Animals: On Health, Empathy, and Our Shared Destinies."
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