Dr. Aysha Akhtar’s Lifelong Commitment to Animal Advocacy

“It is the responsibility of scientists never to suppress knowledge, no matter how awkward that knowledge is, no matter how it may bother those in power. We are not smart enough to decide which pieces of knowledge are permissible, and which are not.” – Carl Sagan

Activism has long been an important part of Dr. Aysha Akhtar’s life. When she was a teenager she accompanied her mother and sister to protests and other animal protection events. Growing up in a family that believed in standing up for animals had a tremendous impact on Akhtar, and she appreciates that her mother—who she refers to as “the toughest little thing in animal rights”—instilled these values in her. She fondly recalls trips she took with her mother and her sister during the 1980s and 1990s. However, these were not typical family vacations. Instead, Akhtar and her family travelled up and down the east coast of the United States, getting up at the break of dawn in order to join other activists who were protesting pigeon, wild deer, and turkey hunts. She also recalls driving 16 hours round trip to and from Connecticut to attend a 2-hour animal protection demonstration. Akhtar describes her mother as having “the kindest heart I know toward anyone who is suffering,” and recalls one particular incident when her family was protesting a pigeon shoot, a scene of “pure violence and cruelty.” There were many who had gathered to protest the hunt, but there were also locals gathered to heckle the protesters. Tempers flared and at one point a man pulled a knife on her mother. Akhtar remembers her mother calmly saying, “go ahead, I dare you.” Witnessing her mother’s “tremendous courage,” in particular when she was standing up for someone innocent and vulnerable, had a profound impact on her.

Akhtar also credits a special dog named Sylvester for helping to develop her love of animals. Sylvester was her grandparents’ dog, the first animal she ever bonded with, and because of Sylvester she began to pay closer attention to other animals she encountered. As she recalls,

Through Sylvester, I became more aware of all the animals around me. As a kid I tried to become friends with and started to try to help so many critters around me. I took in orphaned birds and tried to rehabilitate them. I fed what I thought at the time were stray cats (but it turned out they were our neighbor’s cats who just happened to find a good deal at our place!). I learned to love animals.

Sylvester was a special friend and teacher, and he helped Akhtar through a traumatic time in her childhood. Akhtar finds that the lessons Sylvester taught her remain with her to the present day. (In fact, she is currently working on a book about the relationships and connections people have with animals and how those relationships impact our wellbeing, and Sylvester figures prominently in it.) She finds animals to be “great company” and is especially intrigued by the many ways in which they are so different from humans.

… what makes them so great is not just how they are so like us, but how they are so unlike us in so many ways. Their differences are what makes them so much fun to be around. This world would be so boring if it was only populated with humans. Whenever I was in the company of an animal, I learned to see the world differently. I saw the world through his or her eyes and it opened up my experiences with the world around me.

This sense of compassion for and curiosity about other animals has stayed with her throughout her life. Her experience with the suffering of animals greatly influenced her decision to become a doctor and her desire to alleviate all suffering.

Animal advocacy was a way of life when Akhtar was growing up, and it remains just as important to her today. Her friend, Dr. Alka Chandna, Senior Laboratory Oversight Specialist for PETA, believes that Akhtar is “just as passionate today as she was when she was a young girl.” Dr. Akhtar is now a neurologist and public health specialist who has made it her mission to explore and explain the connections that exist between human health and the wellbeing of animals. Her commitment to animal advocacy remains an important aspect of both her personal and professional life. “Aysha brings her extensive training and smarts to her advocacy,” Chandna stresses, “she has that rare gift of being able to master mind-bogglingly detailed and technical scientific concepts and present them to the public in an accessible, engaging, and even entertaining way.”

Through her love of science Akhtar became acquainted with Carl Sagan’s writings, and she quickly became a big fan, reading all she could get her hands on. The only time she ever skipped school was to attend one of Sagan’s lectures! Akhtar especially admires that Sagan had both a “curiosity about the world around us” and a sense of dedication “to using his curiosity to do good things.” She respects how Sagan did not shy away from taking an unpopular or controversial position if it meant speaking up about something he believed in.

Like Sagan, Akhtar is not afraid to speak out against the status quo on issues she feels are important. For instance, she strongly believes that in order to improve the health and welfare of humans it is essential that the wellbeing of animals also be taken seriously and greatly improved. For Akhtar the two issues are deeply connected, and her work is an important counter to suggestions that those who care about how animals are treated are somehow less concerned about human health. She has repeatedly demonstrated that the ways in which animals are treated have profound implications for public health concerns, and that much more attention needs to be paid to this connection.

When she was in medical school Akhtar noticed that there was no discussion in her classes about how the wellbeing of animals could be connected to major public health concerns, and that the focus tended to be more on treatment and less on preventing the issues in the first place. For example, she would learn about an infectious disease like SARS or the increase in heart disease in the United States, but was left asking questions about their root causes, causes that she was learning could frequently be linked back to broader systemic issues relating to the treatment of animals. She remembers being “increasingly frustrated” by these gaps in her education and became compelled to dig deeper in to the connections between human and animal health. As she notes, “if the people with power are going to ignore these connections, well, then I had to raise the issues.”

Today, through her writings and public talks, Akhtar demonstrates the range of ways in which the health and wellbeing of humans and animals are linked. For instance, she points to the ways in which viruses and infectious diseases can be associated with the cramped and unsanitary conditions that most animals who are raised for food in the 21st century live in. She also underscores that fluctuating weather patterns attributed to climate change can create health and safety risks for humans (e.g.: flooding, drought, scarcity of resources), and that industrial or “factory farming” practices are a leading contributor of climate change. On a related point, she notes that many humans put their lives in jeopardy when they refuse to evacuate an area hit by a natural disaster unless they are permitted to take their companion animals with them. In the realm of entertainment, there are numerous examples of animals in captivity harming those humans they are in closest contact with. The same is true with animals who are at the centre of the “exotic” pet trade. On the more positive side of the equation, Akhtar points to the many health benefits that are associated with sharing our lives with companion animals. Research has pointed to the ways in which having this kind of positive relationship with animals can help with things like stress and high blood pressure.

Animal experimentation is perhaps the most contentious arena in which human and animal health overlap. In this context, human health concerns are quite often pitted against the wellbeing of the animals who are tested upon—the issue is presented as a zero-sum game as if it is always necessary for either humans or animals to suffer. Akhtar’s work in this area presents an important alternative narrative. While she acknowledges that simply due to the sheer number of experiments being performed, we will learn some things from vivisection, she argues that animal experimentation is not as beneficial to human health as it is often touted to be and is, on the whole, counter to human health. She argues that animal experiments are largely ineffective because we can’t rely on them to predict human outcomes due to inter-species differences in physiology. The questions we should be asking, according to Akhtar, are: “is animal experimentation the most useful and most effective way to get information today? Do animal experiments accurately predict what we are going to find in humans?” Akhtar’s work in this area demonstrates that the answer to both of these questions is a resounding “no.” For example, she points to the fact that most drugs that pass pre-clinical trials (in which animal testing plays a large part) end up being ineffective and often downright unsafe for humans.

There are, therefore, many ways in which important human health concerns are clearly related to the welfare and wellbeing of animals. However, in spite of this growing recognition the changes in policies and approaches necessary to address these concerns have been slow to arrive. One of the few contexts in which Akhtar feels that connections between human and animal wellbeing has started to be taken seriously is in instances of domestic abuse. The recognition that victims of domestic violence may choose to stay in a dangerous situation because they can not face leaving their companion animals behind has led to a rethinking of guidelines and regulations for shelters in many communities. It is becoming increasingly common for domestic violence shelters to allow people to bring their companion animals with them when seeking refuge from an abusive situation.

Akhtar is encouraged by a growing interest in the connections between human and animal health among students wanting to work in public health. She has been contacted by many of them who want to know more about her work, and she attributes this to the fact that “younger generations are growing up in a world where concern for animals is a legitimate social issue and they are so excited to break free of old paradigms that view the welfare of humans and animals as separate.” She is optimistic about this shift because she knows that this next generation of public health practitioners will eventually enact the changes on this front that are so desperately needed.

Akhtar takes what she describes as a “friendly approach” when discussing these issues. She recognizes that when people start thinking about the many different ways that human health is positively or negatively impacted by animal welfare they may feel overwhelmed or defensive. She has found that the best strategy for combating this is to demonstrate to her audience that she understands these feelings, that in spite of her groundbreaking work in this area she is not that different from everyone else. As she notes, “I used to not think about these issues. I used to eat animals and yet, I loved my cats. I used to think animal experiments were necessary for human health. I was like everyone else.” This approach has helped to break down defenses and to create situations where people are more willing to hear her out, to think critically about these important connections between human health and the wellbeing of the animals we share the planet with.

When asked who she would nominate to be featured in The Unbound Project, Akhtar mentioned her sister Jabeen who spends a lot of her time volunteering with shelters that help homeless animals, doing such underappreciated tasks as cleaning out cat litter boxes. “She does not do it for attention,” Akhtar stresses, “she does it simply because it is work that helps homeless cats.” She also nominated the brave women who help shed light on animal cruelty through undercover investigations.

I truly cannot express my gratitude for their work. Without them, the abuses would never come to light. And, I cannot imagine how horrible and gut-wrenching it must be for these women to witness these abuses. I often wonder how many of them… have suffered PTSD as a result of this type of work. That is real sacrifice.

Akhtar admires “people with guts” and “folks who go against the tide, even if it means public humiliation or disdain from their friends or colleagues.” She believes that it is these people “who change history.” When asked what advice she has for young women aspiring to do the work that she does, Akhtar emphasized the need to be open to learning new things, to be willing to take chances, and to not be afraid to step outside of your “comfort zone.”

I have had to repeatedly go out of my comfort zone to do things that I did not want to do. I hated public speaking–as a child I had a learning disability in speaking and went to special ed classes for this. But because I so care about being effective in my work, I studied hard. I practiced public speaking again and again and studied the best speakers out there, past and present. I’m not saying I nailed public speaking by any means, but I have much more confidence to do it now. And I continue to practice and study to get better with time. I am constantly trying to improve myself—to be as effective as I can.

Akhtar also notes the importance of being true to oneself. For a number of years she downplayed her animal advocacy even though it is an important aspect of both her professional and personal life. A few years ago she decided to “come out” about this, to be proud and upfront about the fact that she is a doctor who “gives a damn about human suffering and gives a damn about animal suffering!” She urges anyone who feels compassion for animals to do the same, to speak out and to be true to themselves—“concern for anyone who suffers—human or non-human is not only okay, it’s right.” Akhtar is happy to speak with students and young people who are seeking advice on how to blend their concern for both human and animal health in their careers. She can be reached at aa@ayshaakhtar.com.

Dr. Akhtar is a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and works for the Office of Counterterrorism and Emerging Threats of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). She serves as Lieutenant Commander in the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps to protect the public from public health threats. You can learn more about her work on her website.

As she works for the U.S. government, Dr. Akhtar has provided the following obligatory disclaimer: “The opinions expressed here are those of Dr. Akhtar and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the U.S. government.”