Bird in a Cage

By Tom Regan

Beginnings: A Kid of the Streets

I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — “the Burgh” as we who have lived there call it. Although I have not had a permanent residence there for more than forty years I still consider Pittsburgh my home. The Burgh sets its roots deep in those who have known it. The City gets in your blood. You can’t go away from home again.

The house where I spent the first fifteen years of my life fronted California Avenue, a busy thoroughfare on the city’s North Side: three lanes of traffic, two trolley lines. It could get hectic. We never played ball on California Avenue. Beyond the traffic there was a sharp drop to a leveled space some fifteen feet below the street. A dozen train tracks sliced their way to the horizon. You could not see the trains, either from the street or from the second story windows of our house. But their relentless presence was the most dominant aspect of daily life.

This was before diesel engines. Everything was steam. That means coal-powered. The air was filled with great plumes of grayish white smoke and phosphorescent cinders that glowed in the night air. Passenger and freight trains hurried by, their whistles wailing throughout the day and all the night. Everywhere there was the crashing sound of cars being coupled and uncoupled on the Hump. Great lines of cars, hundreds at a time — freight and oil, flatbeds and cattle — were strung together by the skilled workmen. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, every day of every month, you heard the sound of heavy metal.

Everyone who lived along this sprawling artery that linked the coalmines of West Virginia to the steel mills of Pittsburgh belonged to the railroad. This was true even when, as in my family’s case, no one worked for it. The soot and smoke invaded your eyes and ears, your nose and mouth, the elastic around your underwear and the clothes in your dresser. When you took a bath, a black ring remained in the tub after you drained it, a reminder, lest one forget — how could one? — of the clanging world outside. My neighborhood was a child’s paradise, a place where a kid could luxuriate in the steamy dirt of industrial urban living.

That neighborhood is all but gone now. The house where I was raised has been demolished. In fact the entire small block of houses now is an open field, full of weeds and wildflowers. Even the railroad is all but idle. Most of the houses that remain have been boarded up, condemned by the city as uninhabitable.

When I drive through the neighborhood today, grown silent and all but deserted, I am a ghost in a ghost town. No one from my youth remains. Viewing the fading shrouds of what was once a vibrant neighborhood, where VJ Day and the Fourth of July were celebrated with patriotic fervor, where Jews mixed with gentiles, whites with blacks, every nationality with every other, no one would believe that there once were people here who loved these streets and narrow alleyways, the hard cement porches and creaking swings, the wooden steps winding to the hills above. But love it I did. It always saddens me to see the stilled emptiness “progress” has left in its wake.

As a kid of the streets, the animals I knew were mostly the animals of the streets. Mainly cats and dogs but there were horses, too. In those days vendors and junkmen rode four-wheeled wagons through the city, pulled by stoop-shouldered, weary creatures who were occasionally aroused from their dolorous fatigue by the high pitched clang of a trolley’s bell or the crack of the driver’s whip.

Tippy was another matter. One hundred percent mutt, she was an energetic, tri-colored wisp of a dog with a small but clear tip of white at the very end of her tail. She was eager for affection and designed by nature to be free. Give her just the slightest crack in the gate and pow! — she was gone! Like a shot she was through the gate and around the corner.

I understand now that she lacked the space she needed to be the dog she was. Still, Tippy did not want for warm human companionship. My fondest memory of her is when, wonder of wonders, thirty-six inches of snow fell on Pittsburgh in a matter of a few days. That kind of development suspends all the ordinary rules of behavior. Tippy spent long hours free to wander and play. She knew a good time when she had one. Some photographs of those days remain. It is hard to tell who is happiest — Tippy or me.

Excursions: The Country

Not everything was urban in my youth. Along with my parents and sister I enjoyed fishing along the upper Allegheny River. We also visited friends who had farms. Sometimes I stayed on for a day, maybe a weekend, occasionally a week.

The farm I knew best was small, devoted mainly to vegetables and flowers. In the winter, plants were grown in a long, low-slung greenhouse. It was bewildering to enter that luminous space, quiet as a church, feel the accumulated heat of the sun on a bitterly cold day and smell the sometimes dank, sometimes sweet odors of the plants. Without a doubt these were the most mysterious, most awesome moments of my youth, occasions when my experience was so full of inchoate meaning that I could not then, and cannot now, find the words to describe it. It was, I think, more a yearning than a fact I felt.

My guess is, many people of my generation had a farm like this in their childhood. Back then, families took drives in the country on Sundays; farms were places people visited. Urban kids of my time and place were bred and raised on the machine, but we took sustenance in our real and imaginary commerce with the garden.

Some children understand early on what meat is. They realize that a roast or a pork chop or a chicken leg is a piece of dead animal. A corpse. I was not that precocious. Like most Americans I grew up unmindful of the food on my plate and the death of the creature it represents. The animals I knew personally, Tippy for one, I considered my friends. But I lacked the imagination then to make the connection between my fondness for these animals and the silent pieces of flesh that came from my mother’s skillet or oven. The human mind is remarkable for its ability to see the world in bits and pieces, each part disconnected from the rest, like an expansive vista viewed through the narrow slits of a picket fence. It was not until much later in my life that the force of logic and the vicissitudes of experience overwhelmed the chronic idleness of my imagination.

Transition: The Burbs

Had my family remained on the North Side it is virtually certain that I would never have gone to college. People in that neighborhood grew up to work, not to study. My parents were products of that pattern. Neither finished the ninth grade. There was work to be done. Mouths to be fed. Education was a luxury. My parents were unable to pay the price.

My sister was different: She graduated from high school. But then the pattern took hold again. She went directly from the classroom to the workforce. A much better student than I was and natively much smarter, she was certain to have had a distinguished university career had she had the opportunity. And I? I was destined to follow my sister’s lead. The duty of work called. It was not a matter of whether but where to get down to the task of making a living.

But then a momentous thing happened: We moved. To the suburbs. My parents decided that they had had it. That grime-filled heaven of my boyhood had been their hell for too long. We were getting out! No ifs, ands, or buts. And I? I was fifteen, with deep roots in the friendships and places of my youth. If ever a child was resentful and full of anger, these powerful emotions found a home in me. I was determined to be unhappy.

The world did not cooperate with my resolve. In the end, the move was not as traumatic as I was bent on making it. I made new friends and soon found myself a part of a quite different environment. Many of my friends’ parents had gone to college. They had professions — in medicine, the law, education. Their taste for culture trickled down to their children and, through them, to me. I soon found myself reading and talking about Camus and Andre Gide, discussing Nietzsche and Norman Mailer, listening to Bartok and Stravinsky. With my companions I drove into and around the Burgh to watch foreign and classic films. We debated God’s existence and free will into the morning hours. For the first time in my life I began to write. Horrible fiction. Worse poetry. But I took the demands of the Muse seriously. And my teachers liked it. They told me I was a writer-in-the-making.

Music was important. By my junior year I was making a little money playing in big dance bands and in small combos. I played any reed instrument but mainly clarinet and tenor sax. I doubt if I ever would have become a really good musician had I continued playing. I enjoyed the camaraderie as much as the music. In the civilian world the closeness of musicians may be the nearest thing to those legendary wartime friendships formed in foxholes.

After graduating from North Allegheny High School I went to college. This I did for a simple reason: it was what all my friends were doing. I then had only the faintest idea about what a college was. All I knew firsthand was that people “like me” went to one because — well, because that’s what colleges were for. I was encouraged in this belief by the testimony of my teachers and other interested persons. I had a good but hardly outstanding academic record in high school (top tenth of my class, as I recall). Every Open House all my teachers told my parents the same thing: “Tommy could do much better if only he would apply himself.” “Who couldn’t?” I wondered at the time. And still do.

One person in particular, Reverend Luther Fackler, who was the minister of the Lutheran Church I attended, encouraged me to give college a try. I thought I felt a “calling” for the ministry. But I was unsettled in my faith. Even before I went off to college I was unable to join in the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed. The words stuck in my throat. Reverend Fackler told me not to worry. God would find me — but only if I stopped trying to find God. This seems as unsound to me now as it did to me then. Any God who would find me only on the condition that I was looking the other way is a God not worth finding. That much hubris any human worthy of being created by God ought to have.

I wrote an essay on this issue at the time, called “The Seeker.” Neither perturbed nor distracted, Reverend Fackler counseled me not to worry. A true faith is measured by the depth of its temptations to deny, he said. As I was sorely tempted in the latter regard, off I went to college, to find (or, perhaps, to be found by) the Divine Mind. I chose Reverend Fackler’s college — Thiel College, a small liberal arts college affiliated with the Lutheran Church, an hour and a half drive north of Pittsburgh. I applied to no other. My friends’ parents were most supportive. My mother and father for a variety of reasons were less sure. I was too. Folks from the North Side could smell trouble a mile away.

On the Banks of the Shenango: Thiel College

At the beginning, college was everything my last years in high school had not been. I had a hard time making friends during my freshman year, despite playing (at 138 pounds) halfback on the football team. To say I played halfback in college may be — well, actually it is an exaggeration. I did letter in football (and in track and golf) in high school. College was a different league. I was in over my head and should have had enough sense to quit. It was not until my sophomore year that the Age of Wisdom dawned. I never played varsity football again. But even to this day I harbor the belief, as deep and unfalsifiable as any I have ever held, that I have good hands. You throw a ball near me and damned if I wonít catch it!

Whatever Red Barber might write about my sporting life, my early academic career at Thiel was unspectacular. Something like a 2.5 average on a 4.0 system. Before going off to college, as I mentioned earlier, my teachers encouraged me in the belief that I might someday be a writer. My teachers during my first two years at Thiel seemed to be intent upon demonstrating how reprehensible my high school teachers had been in fostering this belief in me. I received a more or less steady stream of Ds and Fs for my early compositions. This gave me second thoughts. Perhaps the Muse I was listening to spoke in dangling participles? I even managed to flunk Spanish. Elementary Spanish at that. Believe me, I thought long and hard about quitting more than once.

But then — and this was perhaps the most important event in my early years as a prodigal scholar — I stopped wearing socks. You need to understand: back then, no one, I mean absolutely no one, went sockless. Back then baring your ankles in public was the social equivalent of walking around in your underwear. Moreover, as I embarked on my sophomore year, I stopped going to class. In a course in English Novel, for example, I showed up twice. Once for the mid-term. Once for the final. When I received a B+ for the course, who could doubt that I was above the common fray? I was becoming somebody. As my parents scrimped and saved, I spent my time burnishing my public image by not wearing socks, not going to class, staying up to two or three in the morning winning pocket money at poker and bridge, playing in dance bands and combos, and (on most days) sleeping well past noon.

In retrospect, I count my lucky stars in the knowledge that, throughout this period of my life, my parents never knew I was wasting their hard-earned money as I squandered opportunities they could never have imagined.

The Death of a Friend: The Imagination Awakens

Another event helped change my life irrevocably, and this one had nothing to do with philosophy. This was an affair of the heart, not the head. And it also took place in that momentous summer of 1972. Nancy and I, and our two children, Karen and Bryan, who then were one and five respectively, had taken a vacation. Earlier on the day we returned home, Gleco was killed — hit by a car while darting across a road.

Faced with this incalculable loss, Nancy and I lapsed into a period of intense, shared grief. For days we cried at the mere mention or memory of Gleco. Earlier that summer, while thinking about Gandhi and pacifism, I had encountered the rude question of the ethics of meat eating. Once severed from any essential connection with pacifism, the rational arguments seemed to be there. My head had begun to grasp a moral truth that required a change in behavior. Reason demanded that I become a vegetarian. But it was the sense of irrevocable loss that added the power of feeling to the requirements of logic.

What Gleco’s death forced upon me was the realization that my emotional attachment to a particular dog was a contingent feature of the world. Of my world. Except for a set of circumstances over which I had no control, I would have loved some other dog (Jock, perhaps, or the poor creature at the mercy of the med student). And given some other conditions, over which again I had no control, I would never have even known Gleco at all. I understood, in a flash it seemed, that my powerful feelings for this particular dog, for Gleco, had to include other dogs. Indeed, every other dog. Any stopping point short of every dog was, and had to be, rationally and emotionally arbitrary.

And not just dogs. Wherever in the world there is life that feels, a being whose welfare can be affected by what we do (or fail to do), there love and compassion, justice and protection must find a home. From this point forward, my heart and head were one. Philosophical argument can lead the heart to water, but perhaps it is only experience that can make it drink. Nancy understood this, as well if not better than I did. Throughout our journey, she was beside or ahead of me every step of the way. We awoke one day to the realization that we had become vegetarians. The intellectual challenge before me was to make our sense of the world less vague and the grounds for accepting it rationally more compelling. That in general was the task I set myself and at which I have worked more or less continuously during the rest of my life.

Comes the Revolution: Changes in the World of Ideas

In 1972 an unknown philosopher submitted an unsolicited review of a previously unnoticed book to The New York Review of Books. The book was Animals, Men and Morals: An Enquiry into the Maltreatment of Non-Humans, a collection of essays edited by Roslind and Stanley Godlovitch, and John Harris. To the reviewer’s surprise, his review was accepted and, in April 1973, published.

Reader response was overwhelming. The Australian-born, Oxford-educated philosopher opened the eyes of many readers to some of the terrible things being done to animals. The editors of New York Review of Books understood that this was something special, so special that they took the unprecedented step of offering to publish a book on the topics covered by the reviewer if he was interested in writing one. He was. A contract was tendered and the book written. The philosopher’s name: Peter Singer. The title of his book: Animal Liberation. The rest, as they say, is history.

As it happened, I had an opportunity to teach at Oxford during the summer of 1973. I had read Singer’s review and wrote to him, explaining that we shared many of the same interests. While I was in Oxford, we met several times. We agreed that an anthology of mainly philosophical writings on our duties to animals would be both timely and useful. By the fall of 1975, we had a manuscript. We even had a title: Animal Rights and Human Obligations. Our next challenge was to find a publisher.

So off I went to the annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. One of the major textbook publishers had a reception to which I was invited. After introducing myself to the philosophy editor, I handed him a copy of the prospectus Singer and I had put together. The editor’s response was one of startled incredulity. He looked at me as if I was in immediate need of the most profound psychiatric help.

“You want to publish a book on…” he began. Unable to complete the sentence, he tried again. “You want to publish a book…on…” This time he found it impossible to stifle his laughter. Guffaw. Guffaw. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but this is too much. I mean, ‘animal rights’!” More guffawing. If there had been a hole in the floor, I would have crawled into it, I was so embarrassed. And angry, too.

But here’s the rest of the story. The editor took the prospectus home, looked it over, and sent it out for review. A few months later, Singer and I had a contract in hand. Over the years, that little book has sold tens of thousands of copies and has been read by tens of thousands of students. As for the philosophy editor: after making a name for himself as someone who was ahead of the times, he went on to have a distinguished career in the world of book publishing.

Animal Rights and Human Obligations was just one among many books that found a niche in the college market from the 1970s onward. It is no exaggeration to say that, during the past thirty years, philosophers have written vastly more on the topic of ethics and animals than our predecessors had written in the previous three thousand.

This has made a profound difference in the classroom. Whereas there was not a single philosophy course in which the idea of animal rights was discussed when I began writing The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism, today there are perhaps as many as a hundred thousand students a year discussing this idea. Just in philosophy. Comparable changes are underway in other disciplines, including anthropology, art history, film studies, law, literature, religion, and sociology. Clearly, in the world of ideas, in university classrooms throughout the world, “animal rights” is no longer a laughing matter.

Other Work

In addition to anthologies in which I served in an editorial capacity, I kept myself busy throughout the 1970s writing a number of essays for a mainly professional audience, some of which were collected in All That Dwell Therein: Essays on Animal Rights and Environmental Ethics (1982). Whatever their philosophical shortcomings may be, these essays chart the history of my struggle to articulate a rights-based understanding of the moral ties that bind us to other animals. Each is a sketch at best. But each seems to me now to have been an essential step along the way to the view I was looking for.

That view is set forth in The Case for Animal Rights (1983). This work represents the fruit of more than a decade of hard thinking about the rights of animals. It comes as close as I’ll ever come to getting at the deeper truths on which, in my view, the Animal Rights Movement stands or falls. It is a work of serious, methodical scholarship, written in the language of philosophy: “direct duties,” “acquired rights,” “utilitarianism,” and so on.

I made every attempt to make the hard ideas I discuss as accessible as possible. But no amount of effort can make hard ideas easy. On this score I have been heartened by the number of people, including the book’s toughest reviewers, who have praised The Case for its exemplary clarity. Moreover, I am especially grateful now that a second edition, with a new preface, has just been released. Not many books have this kind of shelf life.

Liberation: Out From Under the Need to Say More

The process of writing The Case was remarkable. I worked as many as eighteen hours a day for almost a full year, during which time I again was the fortunate recipient of a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. I am a compulsive rewriter. I doubt if there is a single sentence in The Case that wasn’t recast at least once. Maybe even twice. Physically, the work was exhausting. Psychologically, it was invigorating. I never was tempted to abandon the project. Once underway I never veered off course. I was never depressed or displeased about how the book was going. Each day was too short, not too long. I was absolutely filled with, and by, the process of writing.

There is another point I should mention. When I started The Case I did not hold the “radical” conclusions I reach in the final chapter. At the beginning I was against causing animals “unnecessary” suffering in scientific research, for example, but I was not against making them suffer if this was “necessary.” What was perhaps the most remarkable part of working on The Case was how I was led by the force of reasons I had never before considered to embrace positions I had never before accepted, including the abolitionist one. The power of ideas, not my own will, was in control, it seemed to me. I genuinely felt as if a part of Truth was being revealed to me. I do not want to claim that anything like this really happened. Here I am only describing how I experienced things. And how I experienced them, especially toward the end of the composition of the book, was qualitatively unlike anything else I have ever experienced. It was intoxicating. It was as close to anything like a sustained religious or spiritual revelation as I have ever experienced.

Of course, when you have a book published, you can’t help hoping for favorable reviews, written by really important people, published in highly prestigious places. Fortunately, The Case enjoyed a number of such responses. One in particular, written by the late Robert Nozick, had an interesting afterlife.

As it happened, Nozick and I both attended the same philosophy conference in December 1983. At this time Nozick was among the three or four most influential moral philosophers in the world, so it was with some trepidation that, spotting him, I introduced myself.

He could not have been nicer. He was warm, and effusive in his praise. “There’s just one thing I want to know,” he said. Drawing me closer, he asked, “Now what are you going to do?”

Without having fully realized it, this question had been gnawing away at me ever since I finished The Case. I mean, what was I going to do now that I had emptied myself of everything that went into the book?

“Well,” I said, looking for an answer, “I guess I’ll…I guess I’ll… You know, I guess I don’t know.”

“You will,” Nozick replied. “You will.” And with that we shook hands and parted company. I have never met anyone who knew me so well so quickly.

What was I going to do? One thing I knew: I did not want to try to write another “big book” on animal rights any time soon. After mulling things over, three fresh possibilities presented themselves.

First, if I was going to continue to try to make a contribution to the Movement, as a philosopher, I would need to find new ways of doing so. Second, if I wanted to try to make a contribution in some other way, I needed to look for new outlets. Third, if there was something else I could explore, some new creative challenge that had nothing to do with animal rights, I would have to discover what this was.

So (to repeat Nozick’s question): what was I going to do? The answer I reached — the one I have tried to live the past 20 years and more — was, “All of the above.”

Tom Regan, The Historian?

One creative challenge required a near total immersion into late 19th and early 20th century English history. It was during these years that the famous Bloomsbury Group began to take shape and flourish. Members included Virginia Wolfe and her sister, Vanessa, as well as John Maynard Keynes and Lynton Strachey. The Group was as renowned for its unconventional behavior as for its brilliance.

Oddly, the Bloomsburies identified the philosopher George Edward Moore as their chief inspiration. I knew Moore’s philosophy reasonably well, having written both my Master’s Thesis and part of my Ph.D. Dissertation on his theories. His laborious style of writing shaped my philosophical voice as a writer more than anything else. Despite this influence, Moore the man always struck me as more conventional than brilliant. It seemed wildly improbable to me that the Moore I knew could have had the influence the Bloomsburies attributed to him.

With the luxury of a year’s leave as a fellow at the National Humanities Center, I set out to find the answer to the riddle before me. My answer is given in Bloomsbury’s Prophet: G.E. Moore and the Development of His Moral Philosophy (1983), followed by Moore: The Early Essays (1988), and G.E. Moore: The Elements of Ethics (1992). Without my having to say so, these new books said that Tom Regan was exploring a new line of work, in (of all things) the history of ideas. It would not be the last time I would embrace a field of study my disgruntled younger self had rejected.

Rousing the Sleeping Giant

Some animal rights advocates are openly hostile towards religion in general, Christianity in particular. It is not hard to understand why. Given standard readings of the Bible, animals were put on earth to satisfy human wants and needs. This is why hogs fulfill their God-given destiny by ending up as pieces of bologna between two slices of bread.

However, this is just one possible reading of scripture, and an implausible one at that. When God gives humans dominion, we are given the task of being as loving towards Creation as God was in creating it in the first place. That’s how I read the opening chapters of Genesis. I don’t know how anyone can read the words found there and come away with a different understanding.

To my way of thinking, therefore, everything depends on what love for Creation comes to. If (as I believe) it makes no sense to kill those you love, or to make them suffer, or to deprive them of their full measure of freedom, then the Bible is nothing if not pro-animal rights, whatever others might say to the contrary.

Fortunately, some animal rights advocates agreed, Ethel Thurston and the late Colin Smith among them. On behalf of the International Association Against Painful Experiments on Animals, Ethel and Colin invited me to organize and chair a major 1984 conference on religion and animals. In 1986, I was privileged to publish the proceedings under the title Animal Sacrifices: Religious Perspectives on the Use of Animals in Science.

The year after the London conference, with the support of Claire and Bill Allan, among others, I was able to write and direct a half-hour film, We Are All Noah. When the film won a Silver Medal at the 1985 International Film Festival of New York, everyone involved in its production thought we finally had a teaching aid that would rouse the sleeping giant of organized religion. It did not take long for us to realize that we should have thought again.

Dietrich von Haugwitz has been a dear friend for the better part of three decades. Working with other members of the North Carolina Network for Animals, Dietrich found a place where Noah could be shown. Hundreds of invitations were sent to clergy in the area even as the event was publicized in other ways. A lovely spread of meat-free finger food was prepared. And (as has always been true of anything he does) Dietrich had composed a first-rate introduction to the film.

So there we all were, waiting for the first arrivals. And there we sat, waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Will it surprise anyone when I say, “No one came”? It surprised all of us, no one more so than a crestfallen Dietrich. One thing was certain: it would take a lot more hard work, involving many more people, to rouse the sleeping giant. Happily, the last twenty years have witnessed many positive changes, much of them spurred on by the fine work of writers like Keith Akers, Daniel Dombroski, J.R. Hyland, Roberta Kalechofsky, Gary Kowalski, Andrew Linzey and Richard Schwartz.

Talk, Talk, Talk

Publication of The Case opened new doors. Invitations to present lectures on campuses, give speeches at rallies, and read papers before professional meetings increased. I have never kept an exact record of when and where I have spoken; all I know is that, whether for good or ill, I’ve done a lot of talking.

My stump speech was Animal Rights, Human Wrongs, in which I sketched the central philosophical issues defining the animal rights debate. The response that greeted my scholarly ruminations sometimes was surprising. Here are two examples.

The philosophers at one university invited me to their campus. In the months leading up to my lecture, local and national animal rights groups had targeted the work of campus researchers who were doing ghastly experiments on nonhuman primates. You could feel the tension in the air.

When I arrived at the room where I was scheduled to speak, the overflow crowd blocked my way. New arrangements were quickly made: I would speak to a standing room-only audience in a large auditorium. Before entering, I was taken aside and introduced to the head of campus security. He would be sitting in the middle of the front row. If things got out of hand, he would wink at me and mouth the words, “Head for the nearest exit!”

So there he was, in the front row, looking at me with a wide-eyed intensity. I’m sure everyone has had the experience of doing one thing even as we are thinking about another. That’s how things were for me. I was covering familiar philosophical ground: moral standing, indirect duties and so on, while, in the back of my mind, I was thinking, “Just wait till I get to Kant’s categorical imperative: that’s when all hell will break loose!” Needless to say, when I got to Kant, all hell did not break loose.

On another occasion, all hell broke loose before I arrived. Faculty who did research on animals were enraged that I would be invited to their campus. Letters of protest were circulated in which I was described as a dangerous zealot and a rabble-rousing demagogue. The researchers likened me to Hermann Goring and to monomaniacal mental patients who think they are Jesus Christ or Napoleon; one spokesperson even went so far as to call me the Jim Jones of the animal rights movement.

As for my public lectures, the researchers accused me of advocating violence, spreading lies, of asserting that I have the right to impose by violent means my notion of ethics on others; and of inflaming my audiences to commit unlawful acts. And there was the “suggestion” that the invitation should be revoked because I was a prime suspect in the recent murder of a researcher, shot dead in his driveway.

Not a word of what they said is true; all of it is pure fiction. It just goes to show the lengths to which “experts” who don’t like the idea of animal rights sometimes will go in their attempt to discredit those who would dare to disagree with them.

“There’s a Hole in the Movement”

The Animal Rights Movement is so varied in its membership and programs that it will never have one leader. No, the movement goes forward because of the efforts of many hands, on many oars. Much of this work involves recruitment: attracting new people. Another part requires educating ourselves about our deep cultural roots — in philosophy and poetry, art and sculpture, music and dance.

Moreover, we must continue to add to this body of cultural resources, not just rest content with those we already have. Back some 20 years ago, when Nancy and I looked around, we discovered that no one was helping make this happen. Right at its center, there was a hole in the movement.

The need to fill this hole was what motivated the creation of The Culture and Animals Foundation (CAF). Now entering its twentieth year, CAF is a tax-exempt, nonprofit, all-volunteer organization that raises and distributes money to fund three programs: research, creativity and performance.

Over the years, CAF has funded hundreds of “cultural activists” (as we call them) and hosted an annual International Compassionate Living Festival, working collaboratively in 2004 with the Institute for Animals and Society. Thousands of people have attended, always returning home with passions stirred and minds on fire. Watching CAF’s birth and growth, with the assistance of current board members Marion Bolz, Rondi Elliot, and Jean Hollowell, has been a source of great pleasure and satisfaction for Nancy and me.

“Put Up Or Shut Up!”

There comes a time in everyone’s life when the sincerity of our commitment is on the line. For me, that time came in the summer of 1985. That’s when I decided it was time to get arrested.

In May of this same year members of the Animal Liberation Front “liberated” more than 70 hours of videotape of research being done at a head injury laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania. The tape revealed numerous violations of federal guidelines and presented the researchers as uncaring, sometimes even sadistic. Funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the research had been going on for years and was headed nowhere.

The stolen tapes somehow ended up in the hands of Ingrid Newkirk and Alex Pacheco, founders of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Unnecessary Fuss, a 26-minute video, summarized what was happening. The case against the lab was incontestable. So what did the funding agency do? Like spitting in the eyes of Animal Rights Advocates everywhere, NIH increased the funding. It was time to act.

On the evening of July 14, a hundred and one animal rights activists gathered at a motel not far from the NIH. Each of us had a “buddy” (mine was Bobbie Wright, a wonderful activist from Arizona). Plans were sketched. Every one of us knew what we were supposed to do. And when.

To this day I still remember walking into Building 31-B on the NIH campus, meeting Bobbie in the cafeteria, taking an elevator to the top floor, then (at the appointed time) descending stairs and entering the funding office. Mind you: Bobbie and I were not the only folks who entered at that time. All hundred and one activists showed up there, like a hurricane making landfall.

Once crushed inside, we all sat down, some in chairs, most on the floor. Then we started to chant, at the top of our lungs, “What do we want? Animal rights! When do we want them? Now!” Our entrance was so unanticipated, our presence so undeniable, and our volume so loud, that the staff in that office were in total shock. If a boulder had fallen through the roof, it would have made more sense to them than our being there. As we chanted ever ore enthusiastically, we all thought the same thing. We figured the police would be there any minute.

But the police were nowhere to be found as, first one, and then another staff person left. Then other people in other offices were seen leaving until, to our surprise, the entire eighth floor had been vacated. Without having set out to do so, the intrepid animal rights activists were in charge of thousands of square feet of federal government property.

Our occupation lasted four days during which time some of the original participants had to leave, the air conditioning was turned down to arctic temperatures (some NIH officials got the idea they could freeze us out), and the media and members of Congress actually began to pay attention to why we were there.

When, on the morning of July 19, 1985, the remaining civil disobedients marched out of Building 31-B, the funding for the lab having been withdrawn, we all felt that animal rights was a force to be reckoned with. None among us could doubt that we had seized the offensive, that there would be no stopping us now. Five years later, this same feeling of robust confidence would reassert itself again, only multiplied more than a thousand-fold.

“Onward Animal Rights Soldiers!”

Gwyneth Snyder, Diana Basehart, and a handful of other California animal rights activists deserve credit for formulating the idea. Scores of others deserve credit for helping implement it. Everyone agreed: the time had come to flex our muscles. We were going to march on Washington!

As plans evolved, I was asked to co-chair the March with Peter Gerard. This does not mean that we shared the work equally. Peter did far more than I did when it came to the details: advertising the event, getting the necessary permits, crafting a program, and so on. My main jobs were to help raise funds and to motivate animal rights activists to participate. The latter was much easier than the former.

When the day of the march dawned, all the Regans wandered down to the assembly area. We did not know what to expect. We were just hoping we would not be among the few on hand. We were not.

Huge banners waved in the wind for each of the states. Huddled around each banner were flags identifying all the groups from the several states, sometimes, in the case of Alaska, for example, a handful, sometimes, for California and New York, a truckful.

This was one noisy family reunion! Music could be heard at every turn. Some folks were singing, others were chanting. Vendors were selling everything that had anything to do with animal rights, from soy dogs to belt buckles.

Off we started. We knew there were a lot of people but still couldn’t get a sense of the numbers until … until there were still marchers turning on to Pennsylvania Avenue, all the way back at the White House, as the people at the head of the march were beginning to sit down in front of our nation’s Capitol!

Estimates ranged from 30,000 to 100,000 marchers. No one will ever know the exact number. Believe me, I was not the only one with tears in my eyes on that day. Such a mass of human compassion the world had never seen before. Or, sadly, has not seen since. In 1996, when a second march was organized, fewer than 3,000 people participated.

Changing Times

Something happened to the animal rights movement in the six years between the two marches. I don’t think anyone fully understands why. I know I don’t.

Everyone who marched in 1990 could feel a kinship with everyone else. We were united. We spoke and acted as one. I mean, we all felt that our movement, the Animal Rights Movement, was going to take off!

Things did not turn out that way. Instead of growing more unified, more focused, more powerful, the years after the first march witnessed increasing movement fragmentation often accompanied by bickering and back-biting. And whereas, in the years leading up to the first march, new people were entering the movement in unprecedented numbers, by the time of the second march unprecedented numbers of tried and true activists, people who had made a major commitment to animal rights, were leaving.

Don’t get me wrong. Important things continued to be done, both by grassroots activists and by the big national organizations. But things were not the same. That fragile feeling of unity was broken. Veterans of the struggle couldn’t help noticing that some of the wind had gone out of our sails.

I was not immune to these changes. Although I continued to write papers and give lectures, I did less rather than more. Instead I turned to my old nemesis, history, to take my understanding of animal rights to a deeper level.

Animal rights activists are fond of saying that our movement is like other “radical” movements. But is it? How could I give an informed answer without being informed? And how could I be informed if I failed to explore the history of our movement as well as the others? Once the question was asked this clearly, there clearly was no escaping the answer.

I spent the better part of five years reading everything I could about the most important struggles for human justice. The Native American Struggle. The African-American Struggle. The Women’s Struggle. The Gay/Lesbian Struggle. I took what I was learning to the classroom, exposing both undergraduate and graduate students to material they knew no better than I did. Student’s lives were changed by what they discovered. Mine was too.

Here are two important things I learned. Any time some people (the “Ins”) want to exploit other ‘inferior’ people (the “Outs”), the Ins will always have two powerful forces on their side: One will be organized religion (the “church”); the other, the ‘best’ science of the day. Both will say (in their authoritative voices): The Ins really are better than the Outs. Our sacred books say so. So do our esteemed scientists. So, what’s to complain? The Outs are exactly where they belong. Under the boot of the Ins.

So (we ask): Is the struggle for animal rights really like other struggles for social justice? Unquestionably. All we have to do is identify our common enemies. I have history to thank for teaching me that.

Finding a New Voice

The past four years have been uncommonly productive and rewarding. A collection of my essays, Defending Animal Rights, appeared in 2000, followed by my contribution to The Animal Rights Debate (2001), another contribution to Animal Experimentation: Good or Bad? (2002), and Animal Rights, Human Wrongs: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy (2003). Even as this work was published, as far back as 1997, I worked on two other books, one a general introduction to moral theory (still maturing somewhere in my brain) and another, for the general reader (which took too many wrong turns and has been abandoned). It was not until August of 2002 that something dramatic happened, don’t ask me why. But happen it did.

It was my habit at this time to go to my office in the library and spend five or six hours working on the two books I just mentioned. (I had retired from the North Carolina State faculty in January 2001 and had time on my hands.) Sometime in August, another book asserted itself. I mean this quite literally. The new book took charge of my life, in ways analogous to what happened when I wrote The Case for Animal Rights. Only this time, the writing was not easy. This time, the process of writing was sheer agony. I have never worked so hard on anything in my life. I understood why, but that didn’t help.

The “why” was simple. I was trained to write the way those I studied wrote. George Edward Moore, for one, than whom no more plodding writer can be conceived. This (the Moorean) voice was how I put words on the page whenever I sat down to do any “serious” writing. The demons behind the new book would not hear of it. Moore’s ponderous, analytic style was to be silenced. A new voice was to be heard. The only problem was, the old Tom Regan was standing in the way.

So each day I went to my office. Each day the old voice fought to be heard. And each day this new voice refused to cooperate. The contest lasted nine months, the length of an average pregnancy, before Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights was finished. Reading its chatty, conversational tone, you would think it had to be a much easier book to write than The Case for Animal Rights. In fact, just the opposite is true; the latter wrote itself; the former was like getting blood from a turnip.

Paradoxically, however, when I look back on the process of writing, Empty Cages today seems like another gift given to me, only this time from some other source. I am so grateful that I was able to bring it to fruition. Easy to read, if not to write, I harbor the hope that it will reach a much larger audience than The Case and that, in combination with the work of others, it will help revitalize the animal rights movement, returning it to that magical time between the 1985 occupation of the NIH and the glorious day when tens of thousands of animal rights activists marched down Pennsylvania Avenue.


Except for two years at the beginning of my professional life, my home has been North Carolina State University. The University has been good to me, in many ways. Although I was an outspoken proponent of animal rights on a campus where students take degrees in animal agriculture and where hundreds of faculty use animals in their research, I was never punished or threatened for speaking my mind.

Just the opposite. The University has honored my work, presenting me with every award for teaching and research for which I was eligible, culminating in receipt of the William Alexander Quarles Medal, the highest honor the University can bestow on one of its faculty.

As rewarding as these awards have been, I have the North Carolina State University Library to thank for my greatest honor. This is the Tom Regan Animal Rights Archive, inaugurated in 2001, when, in response to the Library’s invitation, I donated my papers, covering the whole of my personal and professional life. Since its founding, the Archive has grown dramatically, thanks to major additions from The Animal Rights Network, among others. Even today the Archive is the premiere repository of animal rights material in the world. On a personal note, the Archive is a lifeline to the future. The Tom Regan Animal Rights Archive will be at North Carolina State University as long as there is a North Carolina State University. For generations to come, the Archive, like a footprint, will attest to my having passed this way.

The same is true, in another way, now that our children have married and have children of their own. There’s something of my genes, and Nancy’s too, in Brooke, Hannah, Anna Drew and our grandchildren yet to be born. They, too, attest to our having passed this way. Such joy they and their parents bring to our lives; so many blessings; too many to count.

Talk of footprints might create the impression that I think my work is done. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today, on the eve of my 66th birthday, I am just as committed, if not more so, to liberating animals from the clutches of human tyranny than I was more than thirty years ago, when I first began to think about the issues. Aristotle is reputed to have said (I’ve never been able to find where he says this), “There are no boy philosophers.” I think this means that we have to experience the world and smooth off the rough corners of our personal identity before we can do our best work. My principal influence, the philosopher Immanuel Kant, is a case in point; he did not do his most creative thinking until he was in his sixties. I like to think the same is true in my case: the better, the more creative, the more productive days are ahead.

So (in response to Robert Nozick’s question, asked some twenty years ago): “Now what will you do?”

My answer has been, and will remain: “All of the above.”

Nature Rebels: Understanding Weakness

Probably everyone who reflects on the life he or she has lived up to a given point in time is struck by how chancy it all seems. Consider my case. Suppose my family had never moved from Pittsburgh’s North Side: Would I have gone to college? Very unlikely. But even if I had, would I have gone to Thiel College? More unlikely still. And that means that in all probability I would not have met either Nancy or Bob Bryan.

How very unlikely then, that I would have gone to the University of Virginia to study philosophy. Or grown into the person who wrote The Case for Animal Rights. I can never think of my past without being overwhelmed by how much of what has happened to me (and this includes the very best things) was due to factors quite beyond my control. I try to remember this when I meet people whose ideas and values differ significantly from my own. “There but for a series of contingencies go I,” I think.

This helps me in my battle against self-righteousness. And in my efforts to be patient with people who are just entering the Movement as well as those who are currently outside it. How little of what we are and what we will become is within our power to control.

And so it is that I look back uncertainly at that self I once was. I see the boy playing on Pittsburgh’s streets, unmindful of the aged, mistreated mare pulling an overloaded wagon of junk and old iron, the whip whistling angrily over her weary head. I watch the teenager running his hands over a butchered side of beef without giving it a second thought. I observe the aspirant Virginia Gentleman listening indifferently to another’s anguish concerning a solitary dog used in practice surgery, his own mind preoccupied with loftier worries about Plato’s theory of Forms. And in every case I wonder, not superficially but down to the very depths of my being, if there is not the slightest hint, the most miniscule portent, of what my future was to be. Is it all a matter of luck? Of chance? Was there nothing in me that directed my growth from within?

There is, perhaps, one hint of my destiny all but hidden in the blur of my boyhood memories. I was born with what has come to be called a “lazy” or “weak” eye. Other names for my condition are “cock-eyed” or “cross-eyed.” Corrective surgery, which is now routine for young children, was not in vogue back then. What was recommended were exercises, and these were done with the aid of a mechanical device at the ophthalmologist’s office.

The device was constructed as follows: If you looked through the right lens, you saw a bird. And if you looked through the left lens, you saw a cage. People with normal eyes who looked through both lenses at the same time saw the bird imposed on the cage, which gave the appearance that the bird was in the cage. I saw things differently. In my case, because of my weak left eye, the bird always appeared to the right and slightly below the cage. Sometimes, when I concentrated as hard as I could, the bird seemed to move closer to the cage. But try as I might I never could see the bird in the cage.

Today, thinking back on what at the time appeared to be a serious failure on my part, I glimpse the one deeply mysterious suggestion of where I was headed with my life, the one possible portent of what I would — and must — become. Try as I might my nature would not permit me to see the bird in the cage. Something in me rebelled against seeing things this way. Others saw the bird as captive. I could only see the bird as free. And that, in its way, is a prophetic metaphor of what I have become.

My fate, one might say, is to help others see animals in a different way — as creatures who do not belong in cages. Or in leghold traps. Or in skillets. Perhaps, indeed, there is in everyone a natural longing to help free animals from the hands of their oppressors — a longing only waiting for the right opportunity to assert itself. I like to think in these terms when I meet people who are not yet active in the Animal Rights Movement. Like Socrates I see my role in these encounters as being that of the midwife, there to help the birth of an idea already alive, just waiting to be delivered.

I have some sense that this was true in my case; the early evidence is there in my natural inability to see the bird in the cage. And yet how long it took for the idea contained in that “failure” to be born!

When viewed in this way, and notwithstanding the painful evidence to the contrary—the many instances of my own indifference to animal suffering, some of which I have been obliged to confess on this occasion — when viewed in this way I think I sense that all has not been chance or accident in my life. When viewed in this way I see that the child I was is the father of the man I have become. I have found my proper destiny. My reason for being. Or perhaps this has been given to me. Maybe Reverend Fackler was right after all.