Voice to Animal Rights
The Satya Interview with Tom
Photo courtesy of Tom
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
What is your view of the political climate
of our country at the moment and do you feel it has any effect on animal
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
www.tomregan-animalrights.com. For more on the Culture and Animal Foundation,
On Tuesday, September 7, Professor Regan will be speaking and reading
from Empty Cages at NYU. For information contact email@example.com.