Mad Cowboy Interview 03: Dr. Tom Regan
(Part 02 of 04)


"So you got your degree in Virginia, and went to North Carolina."

TR: "Then I did a couple of years in a small school, and then I spent the last 35 years of my career, my professional life, in North Carolina.

MS: "Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't North Carolina a rather conservative area?"

TR: "North Carolina is a conservative area, and NC State Univ. is an agriculture school, and a vet school, it's a place where there are hundreds of faculty doing major major harmful research on animals."

MS: "How did the ever deal with you?"

TR: "Well, I think, that for the most part, these folks from the ad school and the vet school, and so on, they knew I was here and they knew what I was saying and what I was doing. But they basically left me alone. They didn't hassle me, and they didn't try to make my life miserable. They weren't happy that I was here. The irony and the paradox, if I can put it like this, is the University awarded me every award for which I was eligible for as a faculty member. "Distinguished Professor," "Outstanding Graduate Teaching," "Outstanding Research," and then it culminated in the highest honor the University can bestow on a faculty member... it's called the "William Quarles Holladay Award."

The University has always been good to me, and the point is, if I had been an incompetent beady-eyed animal rights professor in philosophy, I think they would have hassled me a lot. I don't want this to sound immodest, the problem was that I was good at what I did, and therefore they couldn't just take cheap shots at me."

MS: "It's amazing that you could even walk alone at night on campus..."


TR: "...and the final thing is that when I was approaching retirement, representatives of the Library come to me, and they say, "we'd like you, if you would, to donate your papers to the Library and we'll start the Tom Regan Animal Rights Archive here at North Carolina State University."

MS: "Wonderful..."

TR: "I did do that, I donated my papers to the University. There was this wonderful ceremony, with lots of boxes and big time University officials present honoring the occasion. And, since then, we have received major additional donations, so that today, the Tom Regan Animal Rights Archive at North Carolina State University, the ag school, the vet school, the place where they do all this vivisection, today that Archive is premier collection of animal rights literature anywhere in the world."


"You haven't been banned, but have you had difficulties when being invited to speak at different venues?"

TR: "...I have... there's one particular episode that I talk about in the book, where the researchers at this particular university were very unhappy that I was coming to their university, so they did everything they could to have me disinvited. This meant letters, and memos, and e-mails, and all this sort of stuff saying that I "incited my audiences to riot," that I told them it was alright to violate the rights of people, and that I was like a "megalomaniac" in person who thought he was Napoleon or Jesus Christ..."

MS: (laughs)

TR: "...that I was the Jim Jones of the Animal Rights movement... those sorts of things. Let's just say they weren't exactly throwing out the welcome mat, and it was pretty clear that I wasn't welcome. That happens, and I live with it."


MS: "Your friends and family... how do they feel about your work?"

TR: "Well, my parents now are deceased, but I do know they felt great pride. They were not people who had anything like an advanced education, neither one of them went to the ninth grade. They were uneducated people for the most part, but they came to respect what I was doing, and any good that came my way... they felt really puffed up about it. I was happy, and happy for them."

MS: "Sounds like unconditional love for you..."

TR: "Yeah, that's right... I think if I'd ended up in prison they'd love me just as much, in terms of their love. But I think they were very proud, and probably surprised. This is something their life didn't prepare them for, my writing books. I mean, when I was growing up we didn't have any books, so it just wasn't part of our life. They were good about this."

MS: "That's really surprising to me. You're so articulate, and your ability to turn a phrase is delightful."

TR: "I don't know... must be the Irish in me!"

MS: "Do you have any companion animals?"

TR: "None now, but we have over the course of our marriage. We had two dogs who died within less than a week of one other, several years ago, and we're still trying to process that."

MS: "Do you have any children?"

TR: "We have two children. Our son Bryan, and our daughter Karen. They're both married. Bryan is a commercial photographer here in Raleigh, Karen is married in lawyer in Washington DC. Bryan and his wife have one child, and another is on the way."

MS: "So you're a grandfather! Have you had an influence on your children and their diet?"

TR: "Both our children are vegetarian."

MS: "..and your grandchildren?"

TR: "They're being raised vegetarian.

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MS: "Speaking of vegetarian, how long have you been vegetarian to vegan?"

TR: "I been thinking about this, and it's a little hard to say exactly, but I'm going to say over 30 years. The vegan thing came in, oh... between 15 and 20 years ago."

MS: "You write about your being an anti-Vietnam activist years ago, and make this great statement that, here you were worried about the victims of the Vietnam War, and here, opening your refrigerator, were victims of this other war. Was this an epiphany of sorts or a gradual process of understanding?"

TR: "It was a gradual process. There was a final moment that clinched the realization, as it were. It takes, for muddlers anyhow, it takes time, to open the freezer, and open the freezer, and open the freezer, and to kind of start thinking, "we'll maybe that's not just a piece of meat" and it's a gradual thing... that's what it was like for me... it was gradual. Eventually what you realize is that what you've got there is a dead body."

MS: "Was it a similar process for you to finally go vegan?"

TR: "No, that was more, I think, an act of will then an act of awakening."

MS: "Same here..."

TR: "Oh, is that right?"

MS: "...it was the pus count in milk. That was the final straw."

TR: "For me it wasn't that I saw animals any differently, it was just that I realized that what I was thinking didn't make any sense unless I took this next step. That was more like the conclusion of a reasoning rather than an experiential thing."

MS: "Was a matter of being consistent to your belief structure?"

TR: "Yes, I think that's it.

MS: "What was the most difficult thing to give up as a vegan?"

TR: "Cheese..."

MS: "Yeah, me too. A good glass of red wine and some cheese."

TR: "For me, the best life for me, was some really good bread, and a really sharp biting cheese. There was nothing else I liked as much, and it was the most important food in my life."


MS: "Typical meals... is there anything typical that you enjoy for breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner?"

TR: "Well, I like a big breakfast... I don't each lunch normally. For breakfast, potatoes that are warmed-up in a skillet with lots of spices, not necessary hot, but with olives, tomatoes, mushrooms... a big plate of that and a good bread, is a good breakfast for me. Or if I had some black beans and avocados. I'm almost having lunch for breakfast! But also, I'm a person not opposed to meat analogs --- the meat substitutes that are available. It's not for the taste of flesh that I gave up eating animals, but for who they were."

MS: "Any favorite meals for dinner?"

TR: "I'm happy to say that my wife happens to be the best cook, certainly in North Carolina..."

MS: "...you're a lucky man..."

TR: "...I'm more than a lucky man... and also, one who really enjoys cooking. We eat the cuisine of the world."

MS: "If she were to make something special for dinner, what would it be?"

TR: "There is a dish, that involves green beans, and potatoes, olives.... that sort of thing. She makes it like a pesto, and it's an extraordinary dish. We also discovered this dish in Italy, it's cauliflower and pasta... it doesn't make any sense to Americans, I know, but she makes it with capers and tomatoes. That's out-of-this-world.

The most important thing I have to say to people when it comes to food, though, is something that we learned many years ago, and not many people seem to know. We do a lot of tofu, but we know how to do it. The way you do it is you have to freeze the tofu. When you freeze the tofu, it changes the chemical composition. The point is that instead of that slimey gooey tofu that everybody's not happy about, you get this chewy tofu.

We do lots of different things like that. We also eat a lot Indian food, and Chinese food, and Thai food... to me, and I say this in the book, the really important news about vegetarianism, about veganism, is not the food you give up but the food you gain. Once you give up all that meat, you've got to learn about the cuisine of the world. Because your not going to find it in "Best Dishes of Southern Cooking," you're going to have to go and find out how the other nine tenths of the world lives. And what you find out, is that most of the world eats a vegetarian diet, not necessarily of choice, often out of necessity. But, that's what they eat, and they've had a lot of years of practice at it, and they have a lot of good dishes."

MS: "So, what is your favorite food indulgence?"

TR: "...potato chips! I don't eat them that often, but when I really want to indulge, that's what I eat."

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MS: "How do you handle burnout? Are you one of those people who works themselves to the ground, or one who knows how to rest once in awhile?"

TR: "Burnout? It's seems relative to me. I've had periods of high creativity and activity, and medium periods, and low periods. So it's not like there's been this straight line in my life, I think it goes up and down. There was a period in the early 1990s where I think I did less than I had been doing before, then I kind of got myself out of that. So I don't think that ARAs should think that they're going to always be firing on all cylinders all of the time in order to be making a contribution. What we have to do is be realistic and understand that life has rhythms... the main thing is to keep on the path, and keep moving forward. If sometimes you're moving slower, then you're moving slower, but you're moving."


MS: "You've taken some big leaps in understanding and thinking, and certainly put yourself on the line many times concerning the issues of Animal Rights. Who are some of the people who've inspired you get to this point and inspired you to continue?"

TR: "Obviously the most important inspiration I had was from somebody I never met, but somebody I read, and that would be Gandhi. Gandhi was the first person to challenge me to bring coherence to my values. If I was going to be against unnecessary violence in the war in Vietnam, how could I be for unnecessary violence when it came to how we treated animals? I'm eternally grateful to Gandhi for thinking the thoughts he thought, and living the life he lived. I'm never going to be able to live such a life of simplicity, but it seems that he was as close to anybody... I've read about some of the historically great religious leaders and teachers... and he was as close to the most important truths in life as anybody I know."

MS: "Who else inspired you?"

TR: "Aside from Gandhi, I think the Berrigan brothers, who throughout their life have been steadfast in their opposition to wars that make no sense and policies that make no sense. People like that. People who have walked the walk, and not just talked the talk."

MS: "You've written that Gandhi's Autobiography inspired you considerably, are there any other books that influenced you a lot in your thinking, research... conclusions?"

TR: "Martin Buber influenced me, but when I read him, I think I misunderstood him. Going back I think I understand him better. I think that as a philosopher, certainly Immanuel Kant on my thinking as a philosopher because of his opposition to utilitarianism. We can put it this way, it's because of his understanding that, at least in the case of human beings, there are some things we shouldn't do to each other, regardless of the outcome for others. That had absolutely a profound affect on my thinking."


"Suppose you could have some dinner guest from the past, present, or future: who would they be? It's clear that Gandhi would get a invite. Who else?"

TR: "Kant, obviously, because of the influence he had... I'd want Socrates there..."

MS: "Oh wow, that's shaping up to some great conversation..."

TR: "...and I would enjoy having St. Thomas Aquinas as well... we'd certainly have to have Leonardo there... and Nancy, my wife."

MS: "Did your wife go vegetarian when you did?"

TR: "We walked down the same path, and she was beside me or a step ahead of me all the way. We both evolved the same way, the same time."


MS: "Here's a million dollars (tax-free)... what would you do with it?"

TR: "Actually, we live a pretty simple life. I don't think the acquisition of wealth like that would change it in any significant way. What we would probably do is to help our children, and their security, and our grandchildren... that would be the honest thing to do. But also, we'd renew our commitment to the vision we have with the "Culture and Animal Foundation," because we continue to believe, that there are important things to be done for the movement that stand outside programs of the major national organizations.

Everyone has their kind of vivisection campaign, their factory farming campaign, and their horse racing and rodeo campaign... the important is to also grow and help people understand the cultural resources we have, who in history said what, what plays, what music, what poetry, what drama... within our own movement we don't know that, let alone the general public, so you have to kind of work at getting that out so people know what great resources that are on the side of the animals throughout history."

MS: "I think I remember seeing that on your foundation's website: 'animal plays?'"

TR: "Yes, and so that's one thing, but the other thing of course, is that you need to add to it. You need to support people doing creative work in the arts & letters, and you have to see it gets performed, whether it was written by Shaw a hundred years ago, or by somebody in Schenectady this year. The way I put it is that animal rights advocates need to be inside the theater performing, not only outside the theater protesting. The protest mode is one mode, and I'm not against it, I'm against a steady diet of it. What you need to do is look for positive alternatives to that, and there's no reason we can't be inside the theater performing rather than outside."

MS: "Those are great ideas... it's the first time I've heard of anyone suggesting them. Of course, you have a wonderful artist for the cover of your book, so I can see where you're coming from..."

TR: "Oh yes, Sue Coe would be invited to that dinner, too."

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MS: "What do you think are your biggest surprise and biggest failure over the past three decades?"

TR: "I think it was 1985, this is when.... there comes a time when you have to put up or shut up. In 1985, I decided it was time for me to get arrested."

MS: (laughs): "..today I'm going to get arrested..."

TR: "...that's right... So what happened was, there was a head injury laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Animal Liberation Front liberated 76 hours of video tape that the vivisector's had taken of their own work. And what those tape showed, was not only bad science, people smoking, using tools that fell on the floor, all kinds of violations of ordinary Federal Law, but also a callousness, a cruelty even, when it came to how the researchers treated the chimpanzees they were using for head injury impact research, and so the tapes got to Ingrid Newkirk [PETA], Alex Pachenco [co-founder PETA], and they produced a half hour video called "Unnecessary Fuss." It was like a synopsis, it showed summaries of the worst stuff... it was so damning, so horrible... it made you sick.

The research was funded by the N.I.H. [National Institute of Health], and the N.I.H. gets the tape, renews the grant and increases the funding. A call goes out from Alex and Ingrid, and 101 of us gather at a hotel near the N.I.H., and the next morning, we all go to the N.I.H, and we all had buddies, things to do, and places to be. The long and short of it is, all 101 of us show up at a particular office at a particular time --- which was the funding office. It was like a hurricane making landfall. We got into that office, we sat down, and we started chanting: "We want animal rights. When do we want them? We want them now." I've always said, that if a boulder had fallen through the roof, the people in that office could have made more sense out of it.

MS: (considerable laughing)

TR: "...they didn't know what to do, who we were, they didn't know anything. We all figured, we were chanting away, that the police were going to show up, and we were going to be arrested any minute now. So what happened was peculiar... because what happened with first one person, then another on the staff in this office left, and then everybody on this whole floor of this building left."

MS: (still laughing)

TR: "We had tens of thousands of feet of government space we were occupying..."

MS: "...this was in Bethesda, Maryland, right?"

TR: "Yes..."

MS: "You took over the whole floor?"

TR: "Yes... so negotiations went on for four days, and it's just an incredible story. But when we had finally walked out of there, the funding had been cut off and the lab had been closed. Gandhi would have been absolutely proud."


MS: "Is there a biggest failure?'

TR: "The biggest failure was the 1996 "March for the Animals." The 1990 "March for the Animals," I was invited to co-chair, and I was really intimately involved in that march, and it was a tremendously exciting day, and we had, some estimates said, a 100,000 people in Washington DC, marching for animals, our parade was so large, that when people were sitting down on the grass before the Nation's Capitol, at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue, there were still people around the corner of the White House. We just went on forever down Pennsylvania Avenue.

But in 1996, when they had a March, that I was involved in organizing, there was less than 5,000 people. That was the biggest disappointment."


MS: "When thinking about the past 30 years of your efforts, you've been out there stirring things up, raising some big issues... is there anything you would have done differently, hindsight being 20/20?"

TR: "I think.... sometimes, I could have shown a bit more tolerance of other advocates, who were doing important work, who didn't happen to be on the same page as was at the same time I was. I think I could have done something different and better."

MS: "Is that because of youth and maturity?

TR: "Yeah..."

MS: "...I feel the same way. There are things I've wrote and said back when I was in my 30s online that I wish I'd never written... a lot of anger, raw anger, that I now regret."

TR: "...and it may be, that nothing that anybody might have said, would have prevented me from doing it. But at the same time, there is this obligation which comes with being older, when speaking to younger activists, saying... cool it." (laughs)

MS: "You know, I find myself doing the same thing online, what others had said to me, and it's embarrassing. Mellow out, it's okay, not everything has the same weight or importance... pick and choose your fights."

TR: "... the thing is to, have a thick skin... have a thick skin..."

MS: "That's tough to develop..."

TR: "yeah...but it's essential."

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"You've written over 20 books, and been incredibly prolific. Do you have a favorite among your babies, your books?"

TR: "Well, I have two favorites... one is: "The Case for Animal Rights."

MS: "..that's cited a lot on the web, I noticed when I was doing research for this interview."

TR: "It's certainly been referred to favorably, and I like it a lot. It was a book that wrote itself, a very very tough read, it's very analytical and theoretical, and at the same time I sat down and just wrote that book as if I was channeling some higher power. It was just an amazing experience. When I tell people that this is what it was like writing it, they just can't believe it because it's so rigorous and technical. It's hardcore philosophy. And the other book I like is "Empty Cages," and it's a very conversational easy to read book, I think."

MS: "I found it extremely accessible and easy to read. I'm not saying these are easy topics, but simplicity doesn't necessarily mean not dealing in something that's difficult."

TR: "Sure... but at the same time, what's peculiar, is that it's the hardest book I ever wrote. In order for me to write that book, I had to get me out of the way. I had to take the voice I felt most comfortable with, which is the voice of the analytic, technical philosopher, which dominates when I'm doing something serious, and every day I would go into my office, and I'd sit down, and there was this exhausting struggle going on.... where this "Empty Cages" was trying to get out of me and onto a page, and the dominant Tom Regan voice kept trying to take control. So, it was just an absolutely exhausting book to write."


MS: "I was concerned when I started reading your book that it would be tough, mainly because I'd looked at some of your background, but the fact that you put the footnotes at the end, and not in the body of the work made it very readable. More importantly, you did something that I thought was unusual, that, in retrospect, works: you mention up front that there are, and I'll use the phrase "tons of documents and facts and figure and things" that substantiate what you're talking about, but rather than put them all in the book, you put them on your website [2014 Postscript: the website doesn't appear to exist anymore]. The Fact Sheet sections are just fantastic."

TR: "It's one of these things where less is more. If you're going to try to write a recruiting manual for the Animal Rights movement, then you can't try and tell the reader everything. You have to tell the main story with a kind of eloquence and simplicity... but, you owe it to the reader to provide the reader with information if they want more. If they want the more, rather than the less, there it is."

MS: "...almost like ammunition... that's what the website provides."

TR: "The website, which was prepared by Laura Moretti, is an astonishing addition to the project and something I couldn't possibly do myself."


MS: "Your book has an academic rigor in terms of its structure that I just love, that's the first thing I'll say. The second is you do what so many people who write forget to: you lay out clearly, in classic style, "what am I going to tell you," "I'm going to cover this later or next," "you make your case, "what have I told you," and "what does this mean?" It's really great that you are consciously helping guide the reader through this morass of issues and information."

TR: (laughs): "I think I must owe that to the old Tom Regan's voice."

MS: "...it works, though..."

TR: "Because that's part of the discipline of philosophy: to be highly organized and structured... to say "in Part 1 I'll do this, and in Part 2 I'll do this." That's the way I was trained, and so I think there is something of that in the book. It must be the compromise I reached with my old voice."

MS: "The logical framework is solid."

TR: "That's it... when you get to tell the story, shut up!"

MS: "I've had the chance to read or skim several books related to Animal Rights, and all too often many of them seem, by not having a solid outline, to get very emotional and run off on rants or tangents, well-meaning, but not really helping to distill the argument in a way that someone could then take that and use it internally or externally."

TR: "When I wrote "The Case for Animal Rights," I felt like it was a gift... I was just... along for the ride. I was the vehicle and there was something in the world that I was putting on the page. That is how I felt, that this book is meant not only to make the case for animal rights, but also to present the challenge to those who want to support the industries that abuse animals. Answer this case... answer it. I felt the book was making an accusation even as it was making an argument.

With "Empty Cages," although I've said I didn't feel like I was along for the ride (in fact, I had to drive the whole way, and it was a long trip). But the product that came out of this I feel a somewhat similar feeling. There's not only an argument in the book, but the book takes the form of an accusation again, where the accusation in this case is "Industries: tell the truth. Tell the truth." So even though the composition of the books felt different and were different, there's something similar... not just an argument, but also an accusation. I accuse."

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