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August 2004
Giving Voice to Animal Rights
The Satya Interview with Tom Regan


Photo courtesy of Tom Regan

Tom Regan is a major figure in the animal rights movement and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at North Carolina State University. He has authored more than 20 books, including the groundbreaking The Case for Animal Rights (1983). To foster the growth of intellectual and artistic endeavors united by a positive concern for animals, Regan and his wife Nancy co-founded the Culture and Animal Foundation, which hosts the annual Compassionate Living Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina (this year, October 1-3).

Tom Regan’s newest book, Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights (Rowman & Littlefield), explores the state of the animal rights movement in the 21st century. About the book, Jim Motavalli, Editor of E: The Environmental Magazine, writes: “In a world where exploitation of other species has become mechanized and institutionalized, the animals need a spokesman. That voice belongs to Tom Regan, whose Empty Cages is a clearly written, eloquent argument in favor of compassion for the beings with which we share the planet.”

Kymberlie Adams Matthews had a chance to talk to Professor Regan about his new book and philosophy on the new wave of the animal rights movement.

What were some of your main reasons or motives for writing Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights? And do you feel these objectives are being accomplished?
There is a very large misperception about who animal rights advocates are. A great deal of that has to do with the way the media presents us to the public, a way that unfortunately suits industries that exploit animals. The fact is, special interest groups (via advertising campaigns, public relations departments, and lobbyists) deliberately portray us as weirdos, emotional and irresponsible, anti-scientific and anti-rational. Oh, and of course we are all vandals and terrorists too.

One of the main reasons I wrote Empty Cages was to help people who are not animal rights activists see that they too are being abused by the animal-exploiting industries. The public is not being told the truth. Just the opposite.

Second, I want people to see animal activists for who we really are: Norman Rockwell Americans—ordinary people who take the compassion we all share a little further than most. Everyone who picks up Empty Cages loves their companion animal and would never want anyone to hurt any dog or cat. That’s a given. All that animal rights activists do is take compassion and extend it to other animals. The animals who are turned into food. The animals who are turned into clothes. The animals who are turned into tools. I am trying to demythologize who we are.

In your book, you write that the animal rights movement sometimes turns the public off by using tasteless ads, self-righteous behavior and outlandish pranks for media attention. Specifically, these are tactics of groups such as PETA. Do you believe these tactics are holding back the movement?
I think all organizations do some good and no organization does only good. My hat is off to any organization that is still getting up in the morning, still trying to help animals. Yet, we have to realize there are industries looking for anything we do that reinforces the negative image of animal rights they want to convey. I believe when we do something that is self-righteous, involve ourselves in acts of violence or vandalism, or behave tastelessly, this is grist for the mill of the animal abuser industries. They take a broad brush to it and say this is the essence of the entire movement.

I wish that everybody who is committed to the movement would take a step back and think before they act. We should ask ourselves, “If we do this, will it help those people who want to paint a negative picture of the animal rights movement?” Sometimes I think there is a lack of judgement in the movement as to what is really effective, and for whom.

However, effective activism comes in shades of gray. There is no 100 percent pure, error-free way of doing this work.

Do you think the animal rights movement is on the right track, or are our personal and organizational agendas getting in the way? Do you think the AR movement would have made more progress by now if we worked collectively on issues?
I have no doubt that if we worked more collectively and collaboratively we would accomplish more. I think that overall people in leadership positions of animal organizations are coming to that realization. At the same time, organizations compete for the same dollars. There is an understandable sense among organizations that they are “the one” doing the “important” work. Too often we don’t pay enough attention to each other and are focusing on our own agendas and financial support. That’s a real problem. Clearly, what has to be achieved is a great deal more collaboration. We need to get through the infancy of the animal rights movement and on to the adult years, and move past the ‘feed me, I am hungry, give me your money’ phase. We need to create more coalition campaigns where all the groups involved benefit—and the animals too, of course—instead of competing with one another.

You also say that Muddlers are the future of animal rights and describe them as people who hesitate before grasping AR philosophy or who get there slowly, one step at a time. What is the number one thing activists can do to inspire Muddlers to make the leap?
Well it will probably sound self-promoting, but I wrote Empty Cages for the very people you are describing—the people whose friends, family members, or business associates just don’t get it. They look at animal rights activists and see all of the negative stereotypes. I wrote Empty Cages to use as a tool, something that says, “Here is who we are, what we really do. We understand why you’re not on board. We know this is a process. Please find out for yourself. Read what is really being done to the food on your plate, the clothes on your back, the shoes on your feet, the animals in the circus and in marine parks.” If we could get those who just don’t get it to do this much, then maybe they would see where we’re coming from.

We are not taking anything away from human beings when we stand up for animals. In fact, anyone who is for animal rights has to be for human rights. It’s not an either/or situation.

I get that. I actually have a tattoo that says “Animal Liberation, Human Liberation.” Freedom should unite us, not divide us.
I believe our one true freedom lies in ceasing to be their jailers. Think about it. Here is someone who is in jail every day, and your job is to keep them in jail every day. When they are set free, you are set free too, and your life opens up to all manner of other possibilities. This is how I understand the notion: animal liberation is human liberation. When they are free, we are free.

In your book you discuss the importance of being a subject-of-a-life. What do you most want your readers to take from that idea?
All animals are somebody—someone with a life of their own. Behind those eyes is a story, the story of their life in their world as they experience it. In our culture, we have been encouraged to think of animals as things, as commodities. The great challenge lies in having a change of perception. The realization that they have a life of their own, independent of their utility to me or to anyone else: this is what I am trying to get at when I speak of them as being “subjects of a life.” In this sense, they are exactly like us, equal to us.

I think that many people in the AR Movement today think that writing out a check or just paying their annual membership is being part of the Movement. It’s easy to manipulate people into handing personal responsibility over to the “experts.” This in turn inculcates a strong sense of powerlessness in people while feeding them illusions of individual choice and power. So what do you think it takes to be an animal activist?
Animal advocacy is, in a certain sense, standing up to tell true life stories that are not being heard; true life stories that most people are ignoring. The first step in animal advocacy is to help people see things differently. Animals are somebody, not something.

I obviously feel these things with great passion. My reason for being in this world is to be a spokesperson for those who cannot speak for themselves. I am absolutely certain about this. It’s nothing exceptional in my case. It is true of every other animal advocate. This is why we are in the world. The fact that we have a purpose to our life is very unusual. I think vast numbers of people are born and die, and never have any sense of why they are here. As animal advocates, we have a reason to get up in the morning. A reason to rest at night. And that is to be a voice for the voiceless.

Getting back to your ideas about Muddlers, some animal activists have a hard time understanding people who only take certain steps, for example, a person who is dedicated to their ‘no-kill shelter’ but eats meat. What is your opinion on this ‘hierarchy’?
I think anybody who cares about animals should be so thankful that anybody does anything to help animals, even if they don’t do everything we think they should. If they are out doing trap-neuter-release work or working to bring about a no-kill shelter or protesting rodeo, how can we not be thankful? We are all imperfect creatures, in an imperfect world.

The last thing animal advocates should do is give people another reason to ignore animals. If we present ourselves as self-righteous and pure, and view everybody else in the world as impure, we are just going to turn people off. I can’t even count the number of people who have been turned off to animal rights when we behave this way.

I think we need to get real. We are against leather, against fur, against silk. So what do we wear—cotton or ultra-suede? Well, cotton is one of the most chemically intensive mono-cultural crops in the world. They use pesticides, fungicides, herbicides—‘cide’ means death. They pour death on the land, plow up the fields, killing animals, in order to grow cotton. The run-off goes into the streams and rivers, and marine life is going to die. When we buy cotton, the blood of animals is on our hands. That is the fact of the matter. Ultra-suede is a petrochemical by-product. That means oil—and oil spills—and that means death to marine life. There is nothing pure in the world. Nothing. That includes us.

We need to extend our hand in friendship to people outside the movement. Yes, of course, we don’t eat meat, wear fur, or go to Sea World. But this does not make us pure; it just means we are trying to do our best.

What is your view of the political climate of our country at the moment and do you feel it has any effect on animal rights?
It has a detrimental effect on the animal rights community because it’s hard to be heard. How do we awaken people to animal abuse when they are so concerned about human healthcare policies; whether their sons or daughters are going to go to Iraq and be shot at, maybe even killed; or how we are going to pay $89 billion to fund the war? How can we get them to pay attention to what’s happening at the local shelter? To the plight of veal calves? For animal rights advocates, these are challenging times. That said, we need to keep trying to get the message out, always remembering: Without our voice, no one tells their stories. And if no one tells them, no one hears them either.

To learn more about Tom Regan and his book, visit For more on the Culture and Animal Foundation, see On Tuesday, September 7, Professor Regan will be speaking and reading from Empty Cages at NYU. For information contact



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