To outsiders, animal rights advocates look to be a strange lot. We don’t eat meat, avoid cosmetics tested on animals, and boycott Ringling Brothers. Drape ourselves in fur? Forget it. We don’t even wear leather or wool.

Many people view us as certifiable, grade-A, top of the class nut cases. Reduced to its essentials, however, what we believe is just plain common sense.

We believe the animals killed for food, trapped for fur, used in laboratories or trained to jump through hoops are unique somebodies, not generic somethings. We believe what happens to them matters to them. Why? Because what happens to them makes a difference to the quality and duration of their life.

In these respects, we believe humans and animals are the same, are equal. And so it is that all animal rights advocates share a common moral outlook: We should not do to them what we would not have done to us. Not eat them. Not wear them. Not experiment on them. Not train them to jump through hoops. “Not larger cages,” we say, “empty cages.”

Comparatively speaking, few people are animal rights advocates. Why? Part of the answer concerns our disparate beliefs about how often animals are treated badly. We believe this is a tragedy of incalculable proportions. Non-activists believe mistreatment occurs hardly at all.

That they think this way seems eminently reasonable. After all, we have laws governing how animals may be treated and a cadre of government inspectors who make sure these laws are obeyed.

What do our laws require? In the language of our most important federal legislation, the Animal Welfare Act, animals must receive “humane care and treatment.” In other words, animals must be treated with sympathy and kindness, with mercy and compassion, the very meaning of the word “humane.” It says so in any standard dictionary.

If things were as bad as advocates say they are, there would be an enormous amount of inhumane treatment brought to light by government inspectors. Yet this is precisely what government inspectors do not find.

For fiscal year 2001, the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) conducted 12,000 inspections. Of that total, only 140 sites were reported for possible violations because of improper handling of animals. That works out to a compliance rate of almost 99 percent.

No wonder the general public believes that, with rare exceptions, animals are treated with mercy and kindness, with sympathy and compassion.

Tragically, the public’s trust in the adequacy of government inspections is misplaced. What APHIS inspectors count as humane undermines the inspections before they are conducted. Consider some examples of what happens to animals in research laboratories.

Cats, dogs, non-human primates and other animals are drowned, suffocated, and starved to death.

They are burned, subjected to radiation, and used as “guinea pigs” in military research.

Their eyes are surgically removed and their hearing is destroyed.

They have their limbs severed and organs crushed.

Invasive means are used to give them heart attacks, ulcers and seizures.

They are deprived of sleep, subjected to electric shock, and exposed to extremes of heat and cold.

Everyone of these procedures and outcomes complies with the Animal Welfare Act. Each conforms with what APHIS inspectors count as “humane care and treatment.”

It only gets worse.

Per annum, the number of animals used in research laboratories subject to APHIS inspections is estimated to be 20 million. This figure, though large, is dwarfed by the 10 billion animals annually slaughtered to be eaten, just in the United States.

Remarkably, farmed animals are explicitly excluded from the legal protection provided the Animal Welfare Act. Here is what the AWA says:

“[In the Animal Welfare Act] the term ‘animal’ … excludes horses not used for research purposes and other farm animals, such as, but not limited to, livestock or poultry, used or intended for food or fiber . . .”

But if not our government, who decides what humane care and treatment means for farmed animals? In the realpolitik of American animal agriculture, it’s the farmed animal industries who get to write the rules.

And what treatment might the rules allow? Here are some examples.

“Veal” calves spend their entire life individually confined to narrow stalls too narrow for them to turn around in.

Laying hens live a year or more in cages the size of a filing drawer, seven or more per cage, after which they routinely are starved for two weeks to encourage another laying cycle.

Female hogs are housed for four or five years in individual barred enclosures (“gestation stalls”) barely wider than their bodies, where they are forced to birth litter after litter.

Until the recent “Mad Cow” scare, beef and dairy cattle too weak to stand (“downers”) were dragged or pushed to their slaughter.

Geese and ducks are force-fed the human equivalent of 30 pounds of food per day to enlarge their liver, the better to meet the demand for foie gras.

All these conditions and procedures demonstrate the relevant industry’s commitment to mercy and kindness, compassion and sympathy.

In the newspeak of the Animal Welfare Act, more than “food” animals fail to qualify as animals. The same is true of any whatcha-ma-call-it “used or intended for fiber.” For leather, for example. Or wool. Or fur. This is fact, not fiction. Fur bearing animals, whether trapped in the wild or raised on fur mills, are exempt from the legal protection, scant though it is, provided by the AWA. As is true of animal agriculture, the fur industry gets to set its own rules and regulations of “humane care.”

And what might “humane” fur farming or trapping permit? Here are some examples.

On fur mills, mink, chinchilla, raccoon, lynx, foxes and other fur bearing animals are confined in wire-mesh cages for the duration of their life.

Waking hours are spent pacing back and forth, or rolling their heads, or jumping up the sides of their cages, or mutilating themselves, or cannibalizing their cage mates.

Death is caused by breaking their necks, or by asphyxiation (using carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide), or by shoving electric rods up their anus to “fry” them from the inside out.

Animals trapped in the wild take 15 hours on average to die.

Trapped fur-bearers frequently chew themselves apart in a futile attempt to save their life.

All perfectly legal; every bit of it in keeping with industry standards for kindness and mercy, sympathy and compassion.

Those of us of a certain age remember the immortal words of the television announcer Howard Beale, in the film Network. Things are crazy, Beale says. The world is a mess. People need to get mad. Real mad. “I want all of you to get up out of your chairs,” Beale says to his viewers, “go to the window, open it, stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’”

People who trust what industry spokespersons and government inspectors tell them about the “humane care and treatment” of animals need to follow Howard Beale’s admonition. They need to get mad as hell for two reasons.

First, they need to get mad as hell because of how they have been abused. The plain fact is, they haven’t been told the truth. Instead, they’ve been misled and manipulated by industry and government spokespersons. “Not to worry, John and Jane Q. Public. Trust us: All is well at the lab, on the farm, in the wild. Animals are being treated humanely.” Trust us? Not any more, one hopes.

Second, people need to get mad as hell because of how animals are being abused. When the organs of animals are crushed and their limbs are severed; when they are made sick by the food they are forced to eat and spend their entire life alone, in isolation; when they are gassed to death or have their neck broken: No propaganda machine in the world can turn these appalling facts into something they are not.

If the day comes when the general public does get mad as hell, the ranks of animal rights advocates will begin to grow in unprecedented numbers. When this day comes, but not until this day comes, our shared hope for a world in which animals truly are treated humanely finally will have realistic legs to stand on. EndBlock

Regan will be reading from his most recent book, Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights (see tomregan-animalrights. com), at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Feb.10, at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.