Choosing animal rights, one purchase at a time

`EVERY great movement of social justice - women's rights, civil rights - goes through three stages,'' says United States animal-rights guru Tom Regan. ``Ridicule, discussion, adoption. Although in some quarters people are still ridiculing us, we've moved beyond that. We have all the indications of being at very high-power discussion.'' Professor, philosopher, author of a Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, ``The Case for Animal Rights,'' Mr. Regan has long been considered the animal rights movement's most articulate voice of moderation. He's ``the foremost philosopher on animal rights in the country,'' according to Dr. Michael Fox, scientific director of the Humane Society of the US and president of the International Network for Religion and Animals in Washington, D.C. Regan's ``tweed'' suit (no animal fiber, of course), gentle voice, and reasoned argument have provided a welcome counterimage to that of the sign-wielding zealot perched angrily outside a medical research lab chanting against vivisection or the Draize test.

After worldwide lecture tours (he's addressed the United Nations and the US Congress), 14 books, and numerous honors and awards, Regan is out to awaken the American consumer to animal rights - one purchase at a time. So, after an erudite conversation on the philosophical underpinnings of moral choice, he hands a reporter a grab-bag full of vegetable soap, herbal toothpaste, and seaweed shampoo. These are ``cruelty free'' products, he explains.

Cruelty free?

``We are a consumer society,'' says Regan, ``and our buying patterns represent votes for and against culturally ingrained ways of doing things. The only trouble is, most people don't know what they're voting for and against when they reach for something on the supermarket shelves.''

Though he still hears titters about ```cruelty free' deodorant'' and ``compassionate handbags'' (made with non-leather material), Regan feels that animal rights groups are gaining significant clout and respectability. In the past decade, he says, animal rights has taken its place on the moral agenda, alongside capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, hunger, environmental pollution, and nuclear weapons. ``That doesn't mean that everyone agrees on the issue,'' he says, ``but that everyone agrees it is an issue.''

There are the well-publicized episodes that spotlight animal rights, such as Bob Barker's insisting that Miss USA contestants not wear real fur coats. Or the much-ballyhooed raids by groups like the Animal Liberation Front to free monkeys or dogs from research experiments. The movement counts among its successes the protection of baby seals and whales. ``Both industries are belly up, for all intents and purposes, due to animal rightists following through to dry up demand for the products,'' he says. Scholarly journals address animal rights, as do more general-interest publications. Losses include the case of the California mountain lion, which was taken off the endangered species list recently, allowing it to be hunted in limited numbers.

Part of the problem with animal rights has always been the image of those espousing its cause, says Regan. ``We used to be seen as either a bunch of syrupy, sentimental old ladies in tennis shoes who loved cats, or as social rejects and failures venting spleen.'' Today, he sees a much more diverse and active animal rights community.

``The '60s answer was to drop out of the world, and in the '70s, yuppies tried to buy into it,'' he says. ``The animal rights movement answers the emerging question - How can we stay in the world and not be mastered by its market economy? - by exercising informed, compassionate choices.''

Regan knows there are all kinds of ``non-rational'' motives - cultural, historical, societal, peer pressure - that inform an individual's choice about what he buys for clothing, food, hygiene. He is not here primarily to espouse a list of dos and don'ts - switch from red meat and leather, for instance, to fish-sticks and Naugahyde or else. But he'll gladly hand you detailed consumer lists in every category of soap and cleanser showing which brands ``exploit'' animals and which don't.

The list is quite extensive, published by Beauty Without Cruelty USA - with input from other groups such as the American Vivisection Society, the Animal Protection Institute, and the Humane Society of the US. The group was formed in 1972 to give consumers information about clothing and cosmetics produced without harm to animals. The fall 1986 list showed about 100 cosmetics firms listed, with major names such as Clarins of Paris, Clientelle, and Irma Schorell. Names, addresses, and phone numbers are also published. In the area of shoes and clothing, the list includes only specific products of certain companies - L.L. Bean's Wilderness Boot, for instance, and certain lines of Eddie Bauer, Nike, and Esprit. Founder Dr. Ethel Thurston says demand for the list has grown dramatically in the last five years. The list itself has grown too, although some listed firms resume animal testing from time to time and have to be dropped.

Five billion animals are killed in the US for food each year, and a comparatively few 70 million are used in product testing, Regan says. Still, he wants to give people what he calls a ``manageable challenge'' - the option to spend one's dollars compassionately.

``Changing what one eats is too hard in many cases - it's a leap they are unwilling to make,'' he says. ``But if you give them a smaller step like toothpaste choice to take first, it increases their awareness of what their consumer vote means.

``Then, often you'll find them taking the next and larger step - questioning their choice of clothing or shoes and next the food they buy. The great power of this movement has been on the individual rather than the big structures. But after a while you look up - as has been the case with smoking, drinking, and drugs - and a whole society has shifted its values.''

Beauty Without Cruelty, 175 W. 12th St., New York, NY 10011-8275.

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