Last month, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) Exam Room host Chuck Carroll interviewed me for the podcast episode “What Will Your Legacy Be?”
That podcast was published in audio format on the Physicians Committee website and Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher; also in video format on Youtube with machine transcription. Additionally, PCRM produced The Basics of Legacy Planning, a companion webinar with an estate planning attorney.
Here’s the complete human-edited transcript of my interview, with added illustrations.
Chuck: I love telling a good story on the Exam Room podcast. If you have listened to this show for any length of time, you know that the best episodes are the ones that feature just these incredible stories. And today we are going to tell one of those stories, and we’re going to tell it from a very poignant point of view — from the point of view of a woman who is not only a huge supporter of the Physicians Committee and the show, but the point of a view from a woman who is really wondering about legacy. And she is ensuring that her late husband’s legacy is continuing the good work that they began when he was still with us. And with that, we welcome Alysoun Mahoney to the Exam Room. Alysoun, thank you so very much for being here.
Alysoun: Thank you, Chuck. And may I just say as a sponsor of the show, it’s really cool to be on the other side of the camera, and the other side of the mic today.
Chuck: Well, it’s long overdue, you know, for you to be here. So often, you know, we have mentioned the Gregory J. Reiter Memorial Fund on the show, and I know that you’re very active in in the chat room during the Exam Room Live. You’re one of the Exam Roomies who tune in every day — so it is really, you know, just it’s really nice to actually have you as a guest on this show. Long overdue – so thank you for making the time. Are you ready to do a little storytelling?
Alysoun: I am.
Chuck: So you have just an incredible love story that I think I would love to share. You and your late husband Greg were just so passionate about animals, and I would love to just kind of start from the beginning. You know we’ve heard about the Gregory J. Reiter Memorial Fund — but really, who was Greg? Shed some light on this man for us.
Alysoun: Sure. So he was my husband; we were married for 23 years. He had a relatively short life — just 52 years — but it was a very full 52 years. And he was always kind of a driven guy — he was in the finance industry, where you have to be — but he had another side, which is that he was always looking for opportunities to be helpful to people. And I think this started when he was a kid. He was raised in San Diego, California by an immigrant mom, who had come from Taiwan with a navy guy — and then that guy, Greg’s dad, left pretty early on — and so his mom really struggled to keep the family together. And when Greg was just six years old, he stepped in and realized his mom couldn’t handle the family finances — so he started balancing the family checkbook, and that really set a pattern for the rest of his life – both his drive to lift his little family out of poverty, and the satisfaction that he got from being helpful.
Chuck: Six years old and already balancing the family checkbook. I’m just gonna go out on a limb and say Greg is an exceptionally — he was an exceptionally smart kind of guy, right?
Alysoun: Obviously I thought so. I was biased.
Chuck: So when did you two come into each other’s lives?
Alysoun: Yeah, thank you for asking that question. So we had both gone to grad school at the University of California Berkeley, and we had gone out to New York City to start our careers, and we were members of our alumni association’s New York chapter. And one night they held an historic tour of Greenwich Village taverns, and we both joined that tour, and we met at maybe the third or fourth stop on the tour. And guess what — we were pretty inebriated when we met, but it was love at first sight. And we started seeing each other the next day, and the next, and the next — and we realized that those drunken instincts were actually pretty right. And so we were engaged a short eight weeks after we met each other, and we moved back to California. And we had met on October 24th, 1991 — we never forgot that exact date — and we decided that it would be symbolic to hold our wedding on the first anniversary, and then we were married on October 24th, 1992.
Chuck: Daggone, when it’s right, it’s right – and, you know, even if you do meet on a tavern tour. You’re the exception, not the rule. This is just fantastic. I told you at the top this was going to be a great story. Um, I’m assuming, though, Alysoun, that on this tavern tour when you first met in New York, there weren’t a whole lot of animals. I mean, there may have been party animals — but not necessarily the type of animals that we are concerned with here at the Physicians Committee. So when did the you all’s passion for animals develop? How did that come about?
Alysoun: Right, thank you. So we had both had cats and dogs from time to time growing up, and we adopted our first cat just a few weeks after our wedding — but that’s not terribly unusual for new couples, right? But I think what was a little more unusual was that pretty early in our marriage, animals became the central focus of our personal time — and we adopted, during the course of our marriage – uh, 17 animals. This was important to me – I counted exactly – um, and not only was that a fairly large number of animals, but we took in a lot of difficult cases. Animals who had nowhere else to go, senior animals, animals who had been found on the street, and animals with extreme behavior issues. So I think that was a little bit different. And then in the final two years of Greg’s life, he decided that we were going to expand from cats and dogs to also rescuing horses — like the horses you see in the background here. And we didn’t have any experience with horses, so it was quite a leap of faith. And I probably wouldn’t have done it on my own, but he never shrank from a challenge — and it worked out, and I’m proud that this is something I’ve continued since his passing.
Chuck: Absolutely, that’s fantastic. And those are your horses in the background — what just beautiful shots! I wonder if Greg’s getting that drive at such a young age — taking care of the family, balancing those checkbooks at six years old – you know, helped him build this great big huge compassionate heart, and that’s part of the reason why he was driven, and the two of you then became driven, to help animals?
Alysoun: Yeah, and it went beyond our own animals pretty early on. In the 90s, we began with cats and dogs. Pretty early on, we also started supporting the rescue groups that our animals came from. And then we had this sort of epiphany in the year 2000. I’ll never forget this. We were both working in San Francisco, and one weekend we learned about a sanctuary for farmed animals just outside the city, and we went to take a tour of that. And we met chickens for the first time — and meeting those chickens and getting all the information that the tour guide provided, really opened our eyes both to the individual personalities of all animals, and all the systemic issues with industries that use animals for food and other purposes. And so from that point, we also began supporting organizations that were working more broadly for animals of all species, and working for systemic change to make the world a better place for animals.
Chuck: Before we move on, I’m curious — can you tell me a little bit about the personalities of chickens? I’m not familiar — I’ve not had much of an encounter with chickens yet, and you have absolutely piqued my interest.
Alysoun: So I remember in particular one hen named Alina. She was in a coop with a bunch of other animals, but then they had a larger fenced area where they could walk around during the day, and when human visitors came to see them, Alina was the little ambassador. She would come to the entrance to this fenced area to greet the visitors, and then lead them to the coop where all the other hens were. And she loved to be held – she would make this sort of purring noise — and then when it was time to leave, she would follow the human visitors back to the gate to sort of, you know, bid them farewell. I never forgot that.
Chuck: Oh man, so you’re developing all of these relationships with these animals, you’re discovering all of these personalities. When did the two of you then decide to go vegan? I’m assuming that everything you’re learning and experiencing all kind of played into that.
Alysoun: Yeah, so we went vegan in stages, and the first stage was actually in the summer of 1992 when we were in process of planning our wedding and we were driving up California interstate 5 from Los Angeles to the San Francisco area, and there was this mega steakhouse on the interstate that was a popular place for tourists to have lunch along the road. And while apparently all the other tourists were just focused on their juicy steak, all we could focus on was this feedlot that was right adjacent to the steakhouse, and in this feedlot were hundreds or maybe thousands of really sad looking cows, and they smelled even sadder than they looked. So we couldn’t figure out how anyone could think a steak would be appetizing after seeing that, but apparently we were in the minority. And the night after we passed that steakhouse and feedlot, um, Greg had this dream, and in it was this sort of cow-like creature saying “how can you eat me?” And he told me about this dream, and that day we decided we’re not eating beef ever again — and by the way we’re not eating any mammal meat either. And that went on for about eight years — that we didn’t eat mammal meat, but we still ate chicken and fish etc.
But then coming back to that same sanctuary for farmed animals — that was when we decided no more eating the flesh of any animal. Still we weren’t quite vegan, but once we went vegetarian, we met lots of vegans. And we started asking questions about what’s wrong with dairy, and what’s wrong with eggs — and over time we came to learn that, you know, cruelties inflicted on egg laying hens and dairy cows may in fact be even worse than what animals raised for meat experience. And so finally by 2009 we decided we’re going completely vegan — not eating anything that comes from an animal, not wearing anything that comes from an animal, no furniture, no vehicle upholstery — nothing that comes from an animal. So it kind of went like that for us, and we never looked back.
Chuck: Greg just — he strikes me as such an interesting guy. Being so driven in the finance world, which I’ve never been a part of, but I think that the lay perception is it can be very – um, I don’t want to use the term aggressive, but maybe competitive, something like that. But then we hear you tell these stories about the dream, and it’s like he’s got this huge compassionate heart. I mean, he was a very well-rounded individual.
Alysoun: He was, he was. I was really proud of him, still am. And yes, he was perceived as kind of an oddball in his professional circle, but he had this way of being sort of a pleasant eccentric, and people were attracted to him because he was super smart but also kind of goofy and silly. And that manner, I think, really moved hearts and minds in a way that a more lecturey approach wouldn’t. And so I feel like he really had a profound impact on a lot of people he came to know in his profession. And, you know, after his death, I set up the Gregory J. Reiter Memorial Fund in his honor, to go on supporting all the causes that he and I had supported together during his lifetime, for animals. And I was really gratified to see the number of people from his profession who really probably hadn’t otherwise been inclined to care about animals, but who did give to the fund — and by the way, many of them do still contribute to the fund, even to this day.
Chuck: Isn’t that so interesting! I think it was Shakespeare that wrote “to thine own self be true,” and I think that there’s something about authenticity that we as humans just recognize and we gravitate toward. Because so often we feel that need to put on airs, or wear these masks, but if you’re someone like Greg and you are just living your true life every single day, people are gonna recognize that. Even if you are perceived as being that oddball — but you know what, that oddball, he’s got something that not a lot of people do, right? And he was good at what he did, so that helped as well, naturally. I’m curious, so before his passing, did the two of you get the opportunity to talk about what it is that you may want to do upon your passing? Had you put any plans in place?
Alysoun: Right. Well you know, because he died in an accident, we didn’t really have the opportunity for those deep discussions that some people do. But you know, if you talk about legacy planning — sure, we had from time to time talked about — you know, we should probably do a will, but for quite a few years, we were one of those couples who said “yeah, yeah — but gee, how do we get started?” And then we put it on the back burner – but one day, one of the major animal rescue groups here in the Washington D.C. area held a workshop with an estate planning attorney who happened to focus on pet trusts. And Greg went to that workshop, and he liked what he heard, and so shortly thereafter we decided to hire her to be our attorney — and we worked with her to prepare our first will and our first full legacy plan. I remember it distinctly — it was October 2011 when we did that first plan, and basically we had three goals. We wanted to provide for our human family like pretty much everyone does, right? But our families were pretty small, so that was relatively easy in our case. But then there came our companion animals, and initially we had our cats and dogs, and then at the end we had our horses too, and so we spent a lot of time figuring out how to plan for them. And then last but not least we wanted to leave resources for organizations like PCRM — all of the organizations focused on different aspects of advocating for animals that we were already supporting with our annual giving.
Chuck: You know what, I think there are maybe some people listening right now or watching this, and they’re probably saying: “So they were able to figure this out, but it just still seems like this overwhelming complicated process.” And as you said, I don’t know where to begin. So how difficult, really, was that process for you to begin to get your plans in order?
Alysoun: So I like to think of it like this. You can imagine a scenario where you haven’t done any kind of a will or any kind of a legacy plan — and in that scenario, you know, speaking to your listeners and viewers out there, what’s going to happen to your family — how difficult are you going to make it for them? And if you have companion animals, who’s going to take care of them? You know, your resources are going to get held up in court, maybe for years; they’re going to get whittled away; and in the end they probably won’t go where you want them to go. But then think about the other scenario where you’ve taken the time to do that legacy plan, and then your loved ones are provided for, whether they be human or animal, and your resources are freed up in a matter of weeks or months rather than years, and those resources are pretty much where they were at the time of your passing. So when you think about those two scenarios, any stress involved in working on the legacy plan is so well worth it.
Chuck: Well, okay, I love that — and here’s a big question for you – uh, the Gregory J. Reiter Memorial Fund was the very first sponsor of the Exam Room podcast, and I’ve always wondered what is it about the Physicians Committee that piqued your interest. Why did you find it important for the Physicians Committee to get your support?
Alysoun: So we began supporting PCRM together in 2010, and that was a big year for us, where we had both advanced in our careers to a point where we could begin making significant contributions to a number of organizations that that we thought were doing great work. And although we supported — and I still support — a number of animal advocacy organizations, it really struck us early on that PCRM has a special niche in that it ties together in one neat package a better world for animals, a better world for our environment, and better health for individual humans.
And we got to see a very specific personal example of this very early on, because in about 2012 Greg’s very closest colleague was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and he thought he only had a few months to live. And this was a guy — you know, quintessential finance guy — who didn’t really care about animals at all, but he had a very strong instinct for self-preservation, shall I say. And so as soon as he got that diagnosis, he started doing his research, and he learned about plant-based diets. And as part of his treatment plan, he insisted that he — although he never went completely vegan — he insisted on a primarily plant-based diet, and he did go into remission, and now eight years later he is still alive and well and cancer-free. So that really hit home for us, the importance of bringing human health into the discussion of what’s best for animals, and the environment too, in going plant-based.
Chuck: Holy cow, I was not expecting that turn in this conversation — what a story that is! Man, congratulations to that gentleman — that is fantastic! Um I’ve got to ask as long as you’re here, too, how did you first hear about the Exam Room, and why specifically did you want to help us out with the podcast?
Alysoun: Right, so you know, today, I am really proud that I was one of your early sponsors. I feel like a proud parent here you know, because …
Chuck: You should be …
Alysoun: … I started sponsoring you when you were a once-a-week podcast, and now you’re a twice-a-week podcast plus the daily Monday through Friday Facebook Live broadcast, right?
Chuck: Yeah, we’re staying busy.
Alysoun: And um, so you know, I’ve talked about the guy that Greg was, right? And you know, he went around the world traveling for his work, and he always looked for opportunities to squeeze into a discussion some mention of veganism and the reason for his personally being vegan. And now that he’s no longer here on this earth to do that, there’s this great gap, and I’m always looking for ways to fill that gap. And your program is so perfect for this — you know, you have that international reach, and you talk about plant-based diets, and you talk about getting animals off the plates and out of labs and out of medical training in a way that, you know, it’s really hard for anyone to disagree with. And you know, in this time of the pandemic in particular, when so many people are just to the point where they want to turn off the news altogether, your programming to me is just — it’s real, and yet it’s very hopeful. And that’s a really difficult balancing act, and I just think it’s wonderful what you’re doing, and I’m really proud.
Chuck: Thank you. You are someone who gets it. I mean, we like to have fun, we definitely don’t like to put on airs or wear masks, you know. We kind of have adopted the great philosophy and you know, be yourself, and be authentic, and get that good information out there. So thank you so very much, that is a huge compliment. And you mentioned the pandemic — there’s just so much stress that goes with it, and I think for a lot of people also. When it comes to legacy giving and getting those types of plans in place, that can also be a very stressful thing – so how does it feel for you, knowing that you have these plans already in place?
Alysoun: It gets back, to me, um, to envisioning the future for my animals. I know that when I’m no longer here, I have resources set aside so that my animals will be well cared for. That people I trust can step in and give them the care that they need. I know that my human family members will receive the resources I want them to receive. And I know that organizations like PCRM and some others that are doing great work for animals will have some left over so that they can go on doing great things for animals when I’m no longer here.
Chuck: Well, let’s talk about those great things – uh, talk to me a little bit about some of the successes that have come about because of your support.
Alysoun: Thank you for asking that question. So if I may, I’d like to start with a personal response to that — that I think because of the legacy planning that Greg and I did together, I’ve been able to go on caring for the animals that we had at the time of his death, and to continue adopting new rescued animals. So altogether in my life, I’ve rescued 21 individual animals – cats, dogs and horses.
Then beyond that, some of the resources that I’ve been able to give have gone to organizations that are rescuing animals in the thousands — so that ranges from backyard dogs being freed from chains; animals on farms – cows, pigs, sheep, goats — that have been rescued and brought to sanctuary; or monkeys in government labs that have been taken out and brought to primate sanctuaries. So there’s that level.
But then, last but not least, is the level of systemic change for animals – and that’s where organizations like PCRM come in. And I think the best example of this is when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in September 2019 announced with a PCRM representative at the table that by 2035 they were going to phase out all mammal testing. And I know PCRM had been working for this for years; um, two other organizations I’ve also supported have been working on this for a long time; and of course I was one of many who contributed to this initiative, but it’s a really profound initiative that will save a hundred thousand animals a year, according to estimates. And so it’s just immensely gratifying to be able to do that with Greg’s legacy.
Chuck: Yeah, and I see you smiling as you talk about that, and I gotta think Greg is probably looking down somewhere and saying “man, I’m feeling pretty good about everything that’s happening.” He’s gotta be happy, you would think he would be happy with all of this, right?
Alysoun: I do think so — and you know, we didn’t have human children, so he said many, many times during our lives together that our animals were our kids. And so I like to think he’s smiling down at all those thousands of animals for whom he’s making a real difference.
Chuck: Yeah, you know, my wife and I are the same way — human kids probably aren’t in the cards — but uh, my kid is sleeping under a blanket right there, and he’s snoring — so if you hear little Rudy start, you know, “rrrrt”, it’s all good. Um, final question — and this is for those who say “Well, you know, I want to do what Alysoun has done, I want to make sure that plans are in place. I want to be like Alysoun, I want to be like Greg.” What advice do you have for others who want to create this plan now, so that their legacy can be intact. What advice do you have for them?
Alysoun: If I may, I have three thoughts on that subject. The first is, you know, even before you talk to an attorney, there are some little things you can do. And I would say when you finish listening to this podcast or watching the video today, go and do these things right now. And the first thing you can do is to look at any of your resources that have a beneficiary attached, where all you have to do is fill out a simple form — and maybe have a witness, maybe a notary — but an attorney isn’t even required, and an example of that in the United States would be a retirement plan like an IRA or a 401k. So look at your beneficiary. If you haven’t updated it in the last five or six years, or ever, do that right now.
Then, you know, I’ve read some surveys that say something like a third of Americans think that they don’t have enough resources to do a legacy plan. And granted, in this year, this is not a year that people feel especially wealthy – but even if you have a checking account and a savings account, you probably have enough resources to do some sort of a simple legacy plan at least.
And finally, from what I’ve read, the very biggest reason that most people don’t do a will — or any type of legacy plan — is that they say they just haven’t gotten around to it. And you know, listen to my story, my husband was a healthy, active vegan, barely sick a day in his life, and yet an accident happened. So you know, I’m a living example that you have to do these things today, because none of us are promised tomorrow.
Chuck: Alysoun, thank you so much for coming on today, and sharing your story, and telling us a little bit about who Greg was. You know, I learned so much today, and it’s so nice to get the backstory as to who Gregory J. Reiter actually was, you know, so now every time that I get the opportunity to talk about his fund on the show, you know, I’m going to smile a little bit more. I’m going to feel that connection a little bit more. I think everybody who’s listening now feels like they made a friend today, and I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for coming on today, and for all of your support of the Physicians Committee and the Exam Room. So thank you so very much.
Alysoun: Thank you, Chuck, it’s been a real honor.