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In an interview with Vicki Hutton, the author of A Reason to Live: HIV and Animal Companions, we discuss the new book and relevant subjects, including the public perception of HIV/AIDS and the universality of the human-animal bond. A Reason to Live is the newest book in the popular New Directions in the Human-Animal Bond book series, edited by Dr. Alan M. Beck and Dr. Marguerite O’Haire.


 

Q: Could you briefly explain your book, for those who are not familiar?

Vicki Hutton: A Reason to Live provides a testament to the power of the human-animal relationship for eleven men living with HIV in Australia. In the 1980s HIV changed the lives of thousands of people in a way that could never have been predicted. For many people living with HIV, their animal companions followed them into this new and unexpected life and by doing so, provided some semblance of normality in a world turned upside down.

A book with a Cat on the front sitting on a ledge

A Reason to Live was released by Purdue University Press June 2019

For others with HIV, their animal companions joined them further down the track, and provided the consistent and unconditional support that was not always forthcoming from other humans and the medical world. For this reason, animal companions are part of the narrative history of HIV, and part of the meaning-making around an epidemic that changed the world.

This collection of narratives spans the entirety of the HIV epidemic in Australia, from public awareness and discrimination in the 1980s and 1990s, to survival and hope in the twenty-first century. Each narrative is explored within the context of the latest human-animal research and theory in order to understand the unique bond between human and animal during an ‘epidemic of stigma’. A consistent theme is that these animals provided ‘a reason to live’: both for the long-term survivors and their past animal companions who offered unconditional love and support during this tumultuous period; and the current generation of HIV-positive narrators whose animal companions form part of the ‘wellness narrative’ of living and ageing with HIV.

 

Q: What compelled you to research and write about these stories?

Hutton: I could say that this was a logical outcome of my main areas of research interest: the human-animal relationship and stigmatized medical conditions, but it was far more than that. From the moment I visited a local HIV/AIDS support organization to check out the feasibility of conducting some research into stigma and the human-animal relationship, there was no going back. I was amazed by the willingness of so many people who jumped at the opportunity to describe the wonder and gratitude they felt towards their animal companions. The horrors of living with HIV, including the reactions of other humans, became almost incidental to the latest antics of their beloved animals. That first visit reshaped my research project, and I will always be grateful to the individuals who shared their time and their stories so openly and modestly. A Reason to Live is more than a cultural memory: it is a thank you to those individuals and a celebration of the human-animal relationship.

 

Q: What do you think are some of the most prevalent public misunderstandings surrounding HIV/AIDS?

Hutton: The first thing to remember is that there is not one HIV epidemic. It is experienced in different ways within and between countries, and according to race, gender, sexuality, age, income and decade. For example, a young woman living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa faces different challenges and public misconceptions to an older gay man living in US. Over the decades it has also attracted social meanings beyond the medical meanings, making any public misconceptions surrounding HIV and AIDS dependent on a range of factors.

With this in mind, I’ve noticed a common misconception that seems to straddle many of these groups is the tendency to assign ‘blame’ and ‘innocence’ to those with HIV. In the early years, the concept of blame and innocence saw those who contracted the virus as a result of lifestyle choices – such as unprotected sex or intravenous drug use – deemed less worthy of care and support than those who contracted it through circumstances that were perceived as out of their control – such as blood transfusions or childbirth. Fast forward several decades and blame may still emerge where a person is perceived as contracting HIV because they took avoidable lifestyle risks or failed to adequately protect themselves by adopting all the modern (medical) ways of avoiding HIV.

According to the men I spoke to, there can also be misconceptions around what it means to live and age with this stigmatized and incurable condition. They described how the medications can keep them physically healthy, but there are still challenges such as forming and maintaining relationships, and fears for the future. They described how the public perception in developed nations at least had moved towards HIV being a chronic but manageable condition – as long as a person maintains their medication regime. This perception that HIV and AIDS ares ‘over’ sometimes left them feeling ungrateful, isolated and unable to articulate the ongoing niggling anxieties that HIV can evoke (especially around ageing and cognitive decline).

And finally, I’d like to think that early public misconceptions about the ease of transmission of HIV have abated but according to some of the people I spoke to, this may not always be the case. They described how rules of physical contact were sometimes overtly or covertly reconstructed, leaving them feeling rejected and isolated. They acknowledged that negative experiences had definitely reduced over the years, but this sometimes made it all the more distressing when something unexpected happened. It seems that globally HIV still struggles to divest its misunderstood and demonized reputation.

 

Q: How do you feel these misunderstandings could be remedied?

Hutton: I’m not sure I’m in a position to make a meaningful response to this, given the diversity of the lived experience of HIV. I think if I make suggestions as someone who isn’t living with HIV, my response or suggestions could be perceived as trite and generic.

However, based on the stories I heard, perhaps learning from the actions of our non-judgmental animal companions could be a good starting place.

 

Q: Many are aware of the unconditional love that animals provide, but don’t quite grasp how much these animals can help. What are some of the most profound ways you feel these animals helped their humans or carers?

Hutton: Where do I start? These animal companions were lifelines for some of the men, providing a tangible anchor to the good parts of life that had been eroded following their diagnosis with HIV. Animals are without guile, and they can effortlessly cushion the fundamental human fears of separation and abandonment. They ask for nothing more than love and security, something all the men were delighted to give. In return, their affection remained predictable, and unaffected by their human’s circumstances or appearances.

An animal’s love can’t be faked – a tail wag, a purr, a nibble or affectionate head butt comes straight from the heart. If an animal is looking at you with love and anticipation, it’s easy to believe you are needed and still the same person you always had been. One man described being incontinent and bed-ridden, and how his animal companion lay on the bed and loved him regardless.

If an animal is expecting to be loved and fed, what better incentive to remain alive? One man acknowledged that with a non-existent social network following his diagnosis, his death by suicide would inevitably doom his young cat to starvation before anyone thought to check his apartment. The cat was his reason to live during those dark times.

And if you’re constantly having to care for, clean up after, and exercise an animal, what better way to keep fit? Many of the men described having to drag themselves out of bed in the morning to walk their dog, or feed the chickens, or just let the dog or cat outside to urinate. All acknowledged they probably would have just stayed in bed without this incentive – and felt so much worse for it.

 

Q: How do you feel traveling around Australia interviewing these eleven men most impacted you?

Hutton: This whole experience impacted me in a way that I had not expected. On many occasions I desperately missed the emotional support that my own animal friends would normally offer, especially after some of the more emotion-laden interviews. I longed to go home and cuddle my own animal friends, but this was impossible when thousands of miles away in a different state. I soon learned that no matter where I was, the emotion behind the stories was similar, and it was only the differences in weather and venues that differed – and the distance from my own animal support network.

But there were many fun times too. Whether I was in Sydney, Melbourne or any other state, I’d have to carry the same treats and goodies in my bag for those animal companions who came along to supervise the interviews. Many of the animals, especially the dogs, soon worked out where the treats were stored, and my travel bag became increasingly scratched and nibbled.

Some of these men are no longer alive. Where they lived interstate, sometimes I learned of their death accidentally or well after the event. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to hear their story, and it’s a timely reminder that even with twenty-first century medications, living and ageing with HIV still carries uncertainty and risk.

 

Q: Where there any interesting stories that came from the interviews that did not make it into the book?

Hutton: Some of the most interesting stories came out of our more informal discussions once the recording equipment was off. We shared stories of cat vomit and hairballs, anal glands and chewing habits, urination, defecation, muddy paw prints, scratched furniture and inequitable sharing of bed space – all the day-to-day minutiae that is so riveting for anyone who shares their living space with animal companions.

There were also some personal stories not related to the animal companions that were too harrowing to include in this book. Sometimes I was entrusted with information that a person had never shared before, and it would have been a violation of that trust to include these events. Each man’s story could have been a book in itself as they described their lived experience of HIV in a sometimes harsh and judgmental world. I’ve tried to do justice to those stories through the animals, while acknowledging that this was only one part of navigating life with HIV.

 


 

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