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Tracing an animal-rights philosophy

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Regan envisions a type of 'bill of rights' for animals, including the abandonment of pet ownership, elimination of a meat-based diet, and new standards for biomedical research on animals. Essentially, he wants to establish a new kind of solidarity with animals, and stop animal husbandry altogether.

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"In addition to the visible achievements and changes, there's been what I might call an invisible revolution taking place, and that revolution is the seriousness with which the issue of animal rights is taken in the academy and in higher ed," Regan says. "Thirty years ago, I can tell you that there was no interest, no respect, no work being done by people in the academy when it comes to animal rights. In contrast, there's been more written by animal-rights philosophers in the past 30 years than had been written in the previous 3,000 years."

But with Regan planning to retire in December, a growing number of farmers, doctors, and others are questioning the sustainability of his ideas.

Increasingly, Americans who feel their rights have become secondary to animals' rights are speaking out against a wave of arson attacks on farmers and pies thrown in the faces of researchers. A man in Jacksonville, N.C., wonders why the Marines stop training because spawning sea turtles are threatened, but not because humans in the neighborhood suffer emotionally from bomb training. When hunters in Iowa went to sign up for the dove hunt this year, they were turned away, because the governor called off the hunt after being pressured by animal-rights groups. Radical groups, with sometimes-violent tactics, have been accused of scaring farmers away from speaking up for traditional agrarian values.

Indeed, tensions are only rising between animal-rights activists and groups that have traditionally used the land with an eye toward animals' overall welfare, not their "right" to be happy or to live long lives.

The controversy around Regan is heightened by the fact that he's no pacifist. He says he believes it's OK to break the law for a greater purpose. He calls it the "greater-evil doctrine," the idea that there's moral hierarchy to crime. "I think that you can win in court, and that's what I tell people," Regan says. "I don't believe that you should run and hide."

As Regan recedes from the academy, leaving his notes and memorabilia behind, he's satisfied with how far it has come since the day during the time of the Vietnam War when he realized that "my fork could be as violent a weapon as a gun."

The shift in the level of respect has been "seismic," he says. "Contrary to what a lot of people think, there really has been a recognition that there are some things that human beings should not be permitted to do to animals. Where the human heart has grown is in the recognition of what is to be prohibited."