BOOKS: Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2004:
Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights
by Tom Regan
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (4501 Forbes Boulevard, Suite 200,
Lanham, MD 20706), 2004. 200 pages. Hardcover, $21.95.
Tom Regan, professor emeritus of
philosophy at North Carolina State University in
Raleigh, is so well known as to need little
introduction. The author of more than 20 books,
he has long been among the most respected
intellectual leaders of the animal rights
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson in his foreword opines
that Empty Cages is the single best introduction
to the topic of animal rights ever written. We
can commend the clarity of the logic and the
conciseness of the presentation. Regan takes the
arguments most frequently used by animal
exploiters, gives us the facts, and then knocks
the arguments down with incisive reasoning. If
you want to better put over the arguments for
animal rights, then you must read–and
Chapter one identifies the protagonists
and discusses the means by which Regan contends
that mass media attitudes are manipulated against
animal welfare [even as many mainstream
journalists think of themselves as being
pro-animal–Editor.] Chapter two discusses how animal
rightists develop an “expanding animal
consciousness.” Regan might well have referred
to this phenomenon as an “awakening” comparable
to the satori described in Zen Buddhism texts.
Once awakened to the plight of animals and the
need to do something to alleviate their
suffering, the animal rights advocate finds a
spiritual connection within himself or herself
that says this is now his/her life’s work. If
you go to a café for a cup of coffee, and happen
to glance out of the window to see a miserable
chained dog, and find your comfortable coffee
break turning sour, then you are “muddling” (as
Regan puts it) toward becoming an animal rights
advocate. You are starting to look at life–and
yourself–through the eyes of the animals.
Chapter three discusses the reasons why
humans have rights, in order to provide a
perspective to the subject of animal rights. At
page 50, Regan introduces the notion of
“subject-of-a-life,” which he identifies as the
basis for a human right. He then uses this
concept when discussing where to draw the line
across the biological spectrum. The problem is
this: once we extend the concept of rights to
nonhuman animals, then where do we stop?
Practically, even most activists would restrict
the extension of rights to “all sentient beings,”
including mammalss, birds, reptiles, and
I n chapters four and five Regan addresses
the most common objections to animal rights,
provides compelling counter-arguments, and
points out the dishonesty of many of the
arguments commonly raised against animal rights.
Then comes a section which Regan calls
“the metamorphoses,” discussing how humans turn
animals into food, clothing, performers,
competitors, and tools.
Although Regan deliberately confines his
arguments to the American situation, we feel
that the discussion on canned hunting could
profitably be augmented by reference to some
factors which apply particularly to the Third
What, the animal rights activist may
ask, is the effect of canned hunting on Third
World countries? Well, the hunters express
tender concern for the poverty of rural Africans
and claim to be helping “conservation” by killing
animals and paying for the dubious pleasure.
This is what Regan describes as a Disconnect
Dictum (a palpable falsehood).
In fact, canned hunting enables
unscrupulous people from overseas to continue to
colonise Africa. When organisations such as
Safari Club International in U.S.A. patronise
this industry, they export U.S. dollars and
colonialism to Africa, and they import misery
and bloodshed in the form of trophies. Their
dollars are a corrupting influence in the Third
World, perverting conservation policies away
from preservation toward the cruel exploitation
The sections where Regan deals with
factory farming for food and the production of
wool, could also advantageously have referred in
more detail to the hidden cruelty behind
livestock farming, and again we mention our
experience in the Third World. Few people living
in the developed world are aware of how their
consumption patterns impact upon wildlife in
Africa. Behind placing imported meat upon the
supermarket shelf, or a woolen cardigan in the
shop, lies hideous, hidden cruelty to wildlife.
Not only is there ongoing cruelty to domesticated
animals raised in unnatural conditions, but out
of sight is the unspeakable cruelty practiced
routinely upon so-called problem wild animals,
such as jackals and caracals (lynx).
Yes, you may say, but what has all this
to do with Empty Cages? Actually, everything.
If people are ethically aware enough to adjust
their buying behaviour because they have read
Regan’s book and been awakened, then the cruelty
to Third World wildlife will diminish along with
the market. Practical reasoning underpins
Regan finishes with a chapter that gives advice
on how animal rights advocates should conduct
themselves so as to attract more “muddlers,” as
he refers to ordinary animal lovers who are not
yet committed to the cause. Here he discusses,
inter alia, whether violence such as that of the
Animal Liberation Front is justifiable.
Further to Regan’s concise reasoning, we
would add the following comments based up on our
own experience of fighting for animal rights in
The power to change a whole culture has
to be created and built up step by step in a
maddeningly slow process, made worse by the
ongoing suffering of animals. We believe that
power is something that one creates from the
mistakes of one’s opponents. If this is true,
then it follows that we must avoid doing anything
which gives back some of the power that we are
studiously accumulating–i.e. we must avoid
making strategic or tactical mistakes.
We are not pacifists. We believe that
proportionate violence towards persons who employ
violence towards helpless sentient beings is
justified, but only as a last resort and only
when it serves to advance the cause of animal
rights– for example, in preventing a violent
crime which is already seen as such by society.
An example might be Sea Shepherd Conservation
Society founder Paul Watson ramming the pirate
whaler Sierra in 1979, an illegal act that
stopped another illegal act which was clearly
doing greater harm.
Tactics must vary from one situation to
another as circumstances alter cases. All
options must be conceived and then evaluated.
Among the approaches available to us are
publicity, education, persuasion, boycott,
financial influence, economic sanctions, legal
action, and politics. We should never give up
more than we gain by using violence.
If a meticulous strategic approach is
always adopted, the need for violence will only
arise in the most exceptional cases. We should
distinguish violence from other forms of law
breaking. The proper strategic way to break the
law is to do so openly and transparently in order
to show that either the law, or its enforcement,
is wrong, and to call attention to the suffering
caused by it. If you find yourself being dragged
through the Criminal Courts, as we did when we
rescued three caracals, then that is the price
of commitment. Our reward was seeing
officialdom being reluctantly forced by public
outcry to acknowledge the plight of such animals,
and to take unwilling steps to alleviate their
Regan gives the excellent example of the
COK (Compassion Over Killing) tactic of “open
rescue,” and discusses a 2001 case involving
eight battery hens.
Regan also lists at page 196 the cages
that he feels caring people should try to open
* The elimination of elephants and other performing animals from circuses.
* The liberation of dolphins currently
imprisoned by the captive dolphin industry.
* The end of canned hunts.
* The demise of greyhound racing.
* No more fur farms.
* An end to seal slaughter.
* A ban on compulsory classroom dissection.
* No more dog labs.
* A ban on animal use in toxicity tests.
* An end to pound seizure.
* The total elimination of sales of
random-source dogs and cats to laboratories.
Each chapter is supplemented by notes
offering many useful references to websites,
articles and other books.
–Chris Mercer & Bev Pervan
P.O. Box 1386, Kathu, Northern Cape ZA 8446,
South Africa; telephone 27-53-712-3576;