Raleigh gathering celebrates life of ‘Father of Animal Rights’

Thomas Regan, an animal rights champion, was a dedicated family man who could talk philosophy just as easily as he could talk about Pittsburgh Steelers football.

Regan worked as a philosophy professor at N.C. State for more than 30 years and is best known for the groundbreaking 1983 book “The Case for Animal Rights.” Regan, 78, died Feb. 17 from complications caused by Parkinson’s disease.

On Saturday, family and friends gathered at the downtown Raleigh Tir Na Nog Irish Pub to remember the man who spoke out against animal abuse, not only in food systems but in scientific research, hunting, zoos and circuses.

His conviction was shaped by three major events in his life — the death of a beloved dog named Gleco, activism during the Vietnam War, and meeting and collaborating with philosopher Peter Singer, his obituary said.

“The Case for Animal Rights” has been translated into several languages. The news of Regan’s death prompted people from as far away as South Africa and Thailand to write condolences and remembrances, his daughter, Karen Regan, said.

A thick stack of articles and letters sat on a table Saturday at Tir Na Nog, which was crowded with people laughing, having drinks and snacks, and listening to music.

Regan’s family – including his wife of 56 years, Nancy, his children Karen and Bryan, and his grandchildren – were joined by friends, colleagues and former students.

To have so many people come to celebrate her father’s life was moving, Karen Regan said.

“He was a visionary and he was ahead of his time,” she said. “A hundred years from now, students will look back at his work and see how ahead of his time he was.”

Regan was dedicated to his family, and was a loving husband and father, Nancy Regan said.

“He helped many people and I don’t know anyone who would say a negative thing about him,” she said.

The philosopher, who became a vegan and champion for animal rights, took an unusual path, his obituary said. He was born to a working-class family in Pittsburgh, and even worked as a butcher in his youth.

He attended Thiel College, a small liberal arts school in Western Pennsylvania, with hopes of becoming a writer of fiction, according to his website. After struggling in English classes, he switched majors when the school opened a new philosophy major.

“I wish I could say, then, that the main reason I decided to major in philosophy was because I had an unquenchable thirst for Truth, with a capital “T.” The problem is, that’s not the principal reason I chose to major in the subject. Not at all,” his website said. “The main reason had nothing to do with the search for Truth. I became the first philosophy major in Thiel College’s history because, by choosing philosophy as my major, I was able to avoid taking courses in … history.”

Regan went on to obtain a doctoral degree from the University of Virginia, began teaching at N.C. State in 1967 and served as department head in the late 1990s. He was well-liked by students and received awards for excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching.

At his retirement in 2001, the University Library established the Tom Regan Animal Rights Archive, the first such archive in the world, his obituary said.

Regan’s legacy will live on because his writings are studied in animal ethics classes that were created largely because of his exploration of the subject, said Mylan Engel, a professor of philosophy at Northern Illinois University.

Before Regan began writing about animal ethics, very few philosophy departments had classes on the subject, Engel said. Now most departments have classes on the subject.