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On Animal Rights and Human Wrongs with Neil Abramson, the Author of Unsaid



Neil Abramson’s engaging debut novel has everyone talking. Narrated from the afterlife by Helena, a veterinarian who clings to the creatures she left behind—including her devastated widower David, her menagerie of heartbroken pets, her colleagues and friends—Unsaid places the lives and love of animals at the story’s center. As David struggles to restructure his personal life without his wife in the picture, he finds his professional life as an attorney pulling him into realms of Helena’s world that he didn’t even know existed. Stepping outside of his own grief, he is asked to take up the cause of Cindy—a chimpanzee Helena worked with whose intelligence promises to expand the frontiers of communication and consciousness and whose passion reorients the lives of every last person Abramson introduces. Abramson deftly draws characters whose interactions represent the real, current matters central to animal rights—dignity, quality of life and human accountability among them. As an animal lover, the husband of a veterinarian and an attorney himself whose pro bono work centers on the rights of animals, Abramson brings a deep appreciation for the subtleties of animal personality. He talked with us shortly following the release of Unsaid.

The Bark: When writing Unsaid, did you think about characterization for the animals in the same way as you did for the human characters?

Neil Abramson: Actually, because the central animals in the story were based on real life animals with whom I have been privileged to share my life, they came to the novel almost fully formed. The reality is that they are as complex in personality as the humans who love them (at least in my house).

Could you tell us a little bit about these animals and what made them special to you?

When I hear this question, my thoughts turn to Skippy. Skippy is one of the animals in the novel—a dog with a heart defect. But Skippy was a real dog—a small, black bundle of fur with a wise and handsome, fox-like face. Skippy had been born with a badly malformed heart. He showed up at my wife’s veterinary practice one day and she operated on Skippy, but she couldn’t fix him. She could only give him some additional time. We believed that Skippy likely would be dead within the year. No one wants a dog with that kind of life span, so he came home to us. That turned out to be a very good day.

We were blessed to have Skippy in our lives for three years. He used his time well—unafraid, present, loving, funny, loyal. He was a small dog, but he didn’t live a small life. Skippy died right in my arms. I depressed the syringe that released the pink fluid that finally put his heart at rest. I needed to do that for him. I wanted to spare my wife the burden of one more soul. When it was over, I was surprised at the depth of the loss I felt. The only way I can explain it is to tell you that something deep within me shifted. I realized I was so grateful for every minute with Skippy and wouldn’t have traded the time with him for anything in the world, even though that time ended too soon. Then I understood that this was Skippy’s last gift to me. By taking his life, I learned from him how important the act of living really is.

What’s your response to critics who claim our recognition of the emotional presence of dogs like Skippy, their sensitivity and sentience, are example of anthropomorphization on our part?

First, I tell them ‘so what.’ I think much of the fear of anthropomophism is BS. I am a human being, right? So is it any surprise that I will attribute human characteristics to those animals I value and share my life with? A chimpanzee is not a human—never was and will never evolve into one, but that doesn't mean that my feelings for him or her should be limited by that fact.

Second, I tell them they are wrong as a matter of science. I am not a scientist, but I did a great deal of research for the book and also had a wonderful science advisor. We have finally gotten to the point where the science has caught up with what we have always really known—the overwhelming majority of animals, and certainly the close primates, have many of the characteristics that we so jealously guard as ‘human.’ Of course there are differences, but do those differences justify the profound, destructive disparities in the way the law treats humans and animals? No way.



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Submitted by Jesse | September 29 2011 |

I too felt a shift inside me when I felt my Clancy's heart stop beating. He was an 8 year old Golden Retriever and as near to a perfect dog as God ever put on this Earth. He was consumed by Histiocytic Sarcoma, one of the nastier cancers to be found and one for which there is little treatment. Thanks for this interview. I will read the book. - Jesse in Lovettsville, Virginia (Pack leader to Cody and Katie)

Submitted by Kate | June 20 2012 |

Yes. An animal has his or her inherent and unique value, just as a human has his or hers. Animals have a right to be here. They are not "less-than." Humans are not "greater-than."

Thank you for the interview.

Submitted by jennifer Hahn | June 20 2012 |

Amen to the b.s about the "humanizing animals". i think that in doing so, we give humans a leg up. I always found myself wanting to be more like my dog, and that was no joke,calm, strong, smart, funny, loving, so very forgiving of our human ness, and even when she was in such pain, riddled with cancer, and i did not know ...because she never complained. she also, died in my arms, or on my lap, and i said no to any "life prolonging bullshit that our vet wanted to do to her, i set her free as soon as i demanded the blood work, and knew the truth that she had been hiding. each day was always beautiful, but her last day in my arms, all 98 pounds of her, was planned to a t, and the only words i said all day were"i love my Blue". Those are the words she heard when the pink liquid freed her from her agony, and mine in knowing that she was suffering . If i had been given a year filled with steroids, chemo, etc. and the agony producing "treatment offered", i would have horrifying feelings now, and the knowledge that cancer won, and i allowed her to suffer just to "be with her". No way in hell would i ever cause any creature pain. That goes for all gr8 and small.
I wonder if his wife was a vegan? Farming is so horrifying to me that i am considering it. The quality of life is all that matters not the time span. But 12 years of solid love was the best 12 years of my life. Sorry guys. Blue was my soul mate and my Blue heaven. She was an unconditionally loving being. people do not do this or know how. Oh well, i can not wait to read this book. The good good pig by sye montgomery was the best animal novel that i have ever read.
Thanks for sharing your story with us. jennifer hahn nyc.

Submitted by John V. Brennan | June 20 2012 |

...we are all one... what hurts them, hurts us... vice, versa... their lives enrich ours, and ours, theirs... they become an integral part of our own evolution, as we learn from them how to live and survive in the world... as individuals, as a race of beings... and so to us for them... we are different from them as a species, but not as beings... we are all connected, learning, growing, adapting, surviving in this world, in this universe... this is what i believe...

Submitted by Jeanne Blake | June 20 2012 |

A shift deep inside your heart, soul and mind. How beautifully that expresses what happened to me when Gretta, my first dog as an adult and the kindest chocolate lab who ever lived, went home after 5 years with me. She was picked up by Animal Control as starving on the streets iin a MN November winter. The day she was scheduled for euthanasia and wonderful woman who works with a rescue organization went to the "pound" to pick up another dog, saw Gretta, and just couldn't leave her there. My neighbor asked me to help out at an adoption event and Gretta chose me - muzzle in lap, gentle pawing on my leg "please take me home." I did - and began the happiest years of my life. Gretta was 9 when she came to me. She crashed in a single day - the saddest day in memory. I held her in my arms as she passed over. And, indeed, something deep inside ..... SHIFTED.
Thank you Dr Abrahamson for understanding and for giving us the words to express what happened.

Submitted by Anonymous | June 21 2012 |

Anthromorphism! So many people buy into the belief that we humans are important and special and refuse to believe that animals have feelings and thoughts. Look at the universe. There must be millions of sentient life forms in the universe. They are probably important and special too. If strange and unusual species (to us) are special, why are not the animals of this planet important and special? Where are the important humans taking this planet? To pollution and poisons in air, soil and water, destruction of wildlife and abuse of domestic animals. It's time for humans to stop being so special and start being responsible.

Submitted by Jean Wells | June 21 2012 |

I am a founding member of Mid-Atlantic German Shorthaired Pointer Rescue. I purchased my first GSP in 1970, traced him back to the standards of the breed in Germany, and have owned GSPs ever since. In 1996 I got involved with rescue. I have personally fostered and rehomed 47 GSPs during that time. I ended up adopting 3 of my rescues over the years. I also ended up letting them go over the Rainbow Bridge. I wept each time. I will always remember Heidi, Maggie and Anja as being very special to me. They seemed to know and love me as well as I knew and loved them. Currently I have siblings Felicia and Lucia who are now 3 years old. Every dog in my life has been different - and the same. They were and are very loving dogs who needed to be with their people. They don't just walk into the room to see if I'm there. They have to touch, sniff and receive a reassuring and loving pat on the head or a snuggle. Whenever I hear someone say, "It's just a dog," I could scream. They're not just dogs. They are part of my family and are treated as such. They know if I am sad or in pain. They give solace and love and deserve to be treated in kind. Fostering a rescue dog is the best way to find the 'perfect dog' for you. Every pooch has a personality all its own. They are living creatures deserving to be treated with respect and love.