I’m a big fan of recreational reading, as even short opportunities to escape from the stressors of day-to-day life are welcome. Although I often seek out post-apocalyptic and suspenseful books, I jumped at the opportunity to read Neil Abramson’s new novel Just Life, which features a veterinarian and aspects of veterinary and human medicine at the crux of its story.
I’m also am drawn to reads having zoonotic diseases (zoonosis) as their topic. Zoonotic diseases are caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other organisms capable of infecting more than one species. In Just Life, a virus is spreading through New York City and infecting multiple species. As the concern is that our canine companions are spreading the disease, the National Guard is called up on to quarantine all dogs.
The protagonist of Just Life is Samantha Lewis, a veterinarian who runs a no-kill shelter and gets drawn into the public health epidemic. From my perspective, it’s always interesting to read a sensational story about a veterinarian, as we often lead arduous and sometimes seemingly-mundane professional lives grinding away in the trenches of clinical practice.
I was fortunate enough to have the chance to interview Abramson and get some insight as to the inspiration behind Just Life. So, here we go.
What inspired your interest in writing a novel about a virus capable of transmitting between species (zoonotic disease)?
I wanted to write about zoonotic viruses because they present the perfect context for examining not only our complex relationships with animals, but also our notions of sanctuary and whether compassion – that characteristic that is supposed to be uniquely “human” – can ever defeat fear. We always have too little information about zoonotic viruses and they also carry with them the potential for mass morbidity and mortality.
Ebola and Zika are jut two of the recent examples of viruses that originated in other animals and crossed the “barrier” that we like to believe exists between those other animals and humans. The zoonotic virus is proof of what we refuse to recognize – there is no great wall between us. To the virus we are all pretty much the same. We are all just life. And if that is true, if we are all in this soup together, so to speak, it leaves us with this most uncomfortable conclusion – whatever we do to “them” – the other forms of life we share the planet with -- we ultimately do to us.
What happens in the heat of the moment when we are led to believe that our companion animals are the source of that virus? What would our government or our neighbors do based on that preliminary information? Would compassion win out or would we dissolve into fearful decision making – the same kind of decision-making that cost the life of Excaliber in Spain. Excaliber was a dog killed because his owner, a treating nurse, had contracted Ebola, even though there was no evidence that the dog had – or even could – carry Ebola.
What motivates you to write books (Unsaid and Just Life) where the main characters are veterinarians?
My wife is a veterinarian and through her I have learned that veterinarians are unique; they are members of the only healing profession that are not only authorized to take life, they are expected to do so. It is a remarkably heavy burden to put on any human. And because they care so much about the creatures in their care, this takes a heavy toll. They also serve as this critical and remarkable conduit between animals and humans, often interpreting animal communication that the rest of us cannot understand.
How do you draw upon his own experience with animals when creating novels about the human-animal bond?
When I met my wife, I went from living in a Manhattan apartment with a half-dead cactus to a house that was teeming with life—dogs, cats, pigs, horses, birds, even a chinchilla. I was surprised to learn not only that they each had personalities, but that those personalities were as individual and nuanced as human personality. They teach me something every day. Those are the experiences – both happy and painful – that form the basis for my novels.
Have you ever gone above and beyond normal expectations or broken the law in the best interest of an animal or public health?
“Broken the law?” No. “Above and beyond?” When you live with and care for animals, I guess your notions of what is “above and beyond” for those creatures changes.
For example, a few years ago someone found a box of 6 newborn kittens abandoned in a field during a blizzard. The roads were impassable. The person managed to walk to our house in waist deep snow with the box. Was that above and beyond? Not for her. The kittens were in horrible shape, half frozen, dehydrated and near death. My wife and I both had the flu. We had no power, no heat and no water, but we had to keep those kittens hydrated and warm enough until we could get them to the animal hospital the following day. We had to stay awake all night and carry them under our shirts so they could take some of our body heat.
Was that “above and beyond”? I would like to think that any half-way compassionate person would have done the same exact thing.
How did you become involved with the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF)?
I became involved in ALDF as a young associate lawyer with the encouragement of a senior partner I was working with at the time. I wanted to do pro bono legal work for animals and they gave me my first animal case to handle. They do great work, are passionate, and, when it comes to animal legal issues, are typically the smartest folks in the room (at least when I am in the room).
What’s next in terms of upcoming novels or media projects?
I hope to keep writing about animals and our relationship with them as long as you folks will have me.
Thank you Neil for responding to these questions and for continuing to create interesting and inspiring material.
Dr. Patrick Mahaney
Thank you for reading this article. Your questions and comments are completely welcome.
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Copyright of this article (2016) is owned by Dr Patrick Mahaney, Veterinarian and Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist. Republishing any portion of this article must first be authorized by Dr Patrick Mahaney. Requests for republishing must be approved by Dr Patrick Mahaney and received in written format.