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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.
Let’s talk about those disparities. In legal terms today, are animals subject to animal testing still seen no differently than inanimate objects? Any developments on the horizon that might offer hope of change? What can concerned people do to help bring about change?
Lots of different questions here. The short answer is that in many areas, and particularly when it comes to the ability to be free from bodily injury, the law treats nonhuman testing subjects very much like inanimate objects. Those animals are just ‘things’ and have absolutely no personal rights of autonomy. The welfare of those animals may be regulated in many respects—cage size, clean and sufficient food and water—but that is a far cry from recognizing that those animals have rights as animals (not as ‘almost humans’) to be free from unnecessary injury and harm.
Is there hope for change? Yes, there is. There are a number of wonderful organizations that are working to change the law so that chimpanzees and bonobos, for example, will one day be recognized as having certain basic legal rights, like the right to be free from intentional harm. In addition to supporting those organizations, people can help by raising awareness of the issue through social media. The law will change when people insist that it is time for change.