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Norm Phelps, Spiritual Mentor to the AR Movement

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January 12, 2015

by Merritt Clifton

Norm Phelps, 75, died on December 31, 2014 at the Meritus Health Hospital in Hagerstown, Maryland. Phelps had battled myasthenia gravis, an auto-immune neuromuscular condition that causes severe fatigue and weakness, since 2002.

A vegan since 1984, survived by his wife and fellow longtime animal advocate Patti Rogers, Phelps quit eating meat in response to the death of his dog Czar.

"Czar was a person," Phelps wrote much later. "He had a personality as individual and well-defined as any human being. He could love, he could trust, he could share, he could enjoy, he could fear, he could worry, he could look forward to the future and remember the past, he had a sense of who he was, and he would have sacrificed himself for me without a moment's hesitation… If Czar was a person, what about other animals? What about cows, pigs, chickens and sheep? Weren't they people, too? How could we love some and eat others?"

Paul Shapiro & Norm Phelps (Facebook)

Paul Shapiro & Norm Phelps (Facebook)

Eulogized by Paul Shapiro

"A founding member of the Society of Ethical & Religious Vegetarians," Phelps "served during his retirement as volunteer outreach director for The Fund for Animals," recalled Humane Society of the U.S. vice president for farm animal protection Paul Shapiro.

"I first met Norm," continued Shapiro, who earlier founded Compassion Over Killing, "when he began volunteering for Compassion Over Killing in the mid-1990s. Then I was honored to become his coworker in 1998 at The Fund for Animals. For decades Norm was a fixture at major animal protection events, including the Hegins pigeon shoot in Pennsylvania, conferences at which he spoke about the history of the animal protection movement, and faith-based issues, vigils, leafleting events, and more. While the first part of his life was spent, as he used to joke, as a government bureaucrat at the Department of Transportation, the latter portion was devoted to creating a kinder world for animals. He even retired early from the federal government so that he could devote more years of his life to full-time animal advocacy."

From Fund for Animals to HSUS

Recounted Wikipedia, "Generally opposed to militant direct action on the grounds that it is counterproductive, Phelps supported live rescues of animals from farms and laboratories. In 1994, he was arrested at a pigeon shoot in Pikeville, Pennsylvania for releasing 200 pigeons who were slated to become living targets. He spent two days in Berks County Prison and was subsequently convicted of malicious mischief."

The Fund for Animals merged with the Humane Society of the U.S. in 2005. Phelps served in the wildlife department at HSUS until his resignation for health reasons in 2011.

Phelps' first book, Canned Hunts: Unfair At Any Price, co-authored by Diana Norris and D.J. Schubert, was published by the Fund for Animals in late 2001, with a 2002 copyright date.

The Dalai Lama.  ((PETA photo)

The Dalai Lama. ((PETA photo)

Phelps & the Dalai Lama

A few months later Phelps in his capacity as spiritual outreach director for the Fund for Animals asked the Dalai Lama to address the growth of trophy hunting in Mongolia. Phelps, a longtime practicing Tibetan Buddhist, outlined the heavy investment of western trophy hunting outfitters in promoting safaris to kill argali sheep, snow leopards, Bactrian camels and other species, many of which may not be legally hunted anywhere else.

Phelps pointed out that "An estimated 95% of the Mongolian population of 2.5 million are Tibetan Buddhists."

Making what was at the time his strongest statement to date on behalf of animals, the Dalai Lama on March 29, 2002 reminded Buddhists that sport hunting is contrary to the teachings of the Buddhist religion.

"I am deeply saddened to learn that Mongolia encourages trophy hunting of rare and endangered species for tourism," the Dalai Lama wrote. "We all know that taking others' lives is in general against Buddhist principles. How can we destroy and play with the lives of animals merely for fun, pleasure, and sports? It is unthinkable.

"Tibet," continued the Dalai Lama, "as a Buddhist country, in the past had banned hunting of animals in any form. Today there is greater awareness worldwide for the protection of not only the environment but also of animals, their rights, and their protection against torture. And therefore, even in countries where there are strong traditions of hunting, people are passing laws to ban it. A good case in point is the recent ban on fox hunting by the Scottish Parliament.

"I therefore appeal to all concerned in Mongolia not to indulge in trophy hunting of rare and endangered species," the Dalai Lama concluded. "I make this appeal as a Buddhist because of our respect and compassion for all living beings."

great_compassion_cover-130x191The split

Phelps split with the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism a little over five years later, three years after criticizing the hyprocisy of Buddhist meat-eaters in his third book, The Great Compassion: Buddhism & Animal Rights (2004).

"I have been a practicing Tibetan Buddhist since 1985 and an animal rights activist for about the same time," Phelps e-mailed to me on June 22, 2007. "Both are, in fact, part of the same spiritual quest. I have revered the Dalai Lama as a great bodhisattva for more than two decades. But there is no principle in Buddhism more important than compassion, not even reverence for our teachers. Quiet, private communication has failed utterly. The Dalai Lama continues to preach vegetarianism while enjoying the fruits of the slaughterhouse in violation of the Buddha's clear teachings in the Lankavatara Sutra, Brahmajala Sutra, Mahaparinirvana Sutra, and elsewhere. I feel I am left with no moral option but to make a public statement, although I do so only reluctantly and with great sorrow."

Open letter

Wrote Phelps in an open letter to the Dalai Lama, "In November 1998 you generously granted me a private audience in Washington, D.C. for the purpose of discussing a vegetarian diet as Buddhist practice. You were very gracious in providing me an opportunity to urge you to adopt a vegetarian diet on full-time basis. You told me that because of liver damage resulting from hepatitis B, your doctors had instructed you to eat meat, and that for some years you had compromised by eating vegetarian every other day. You spoke movingly of your deep compassion for animals and your desire that as many people as possible, including Tibetans and Buddhists, adopt a vegetarian diet as an expression of Buddhist compassion for all sentient beings.

"Less than three weeks after this interview, Agence France Presse reported that at a dinner at the Elysee Palace for Nobel Peace Prize laureates, you refused the vegetarian meal that you had been served with the comment, ‘I'm a Tibetan monk, not a vegetarian,' and insisted on being served the same entrée that the other guests were having. I understood that the dinner might have been held on a meat-eating day of your one-day-meat, one-day-veggies regime, but I could not understand why you would publicly go out of your way to dissociate yourself from a compassionate vegetarian diet when just days earlier you had spoken to me with such apparent conviction about the need for ‘everyone who can' to become vegetarian. There were no reporters present at the dinner; the AFP reporter heard the story from you the next day, which suggests that you wanted the world to know that you were not vegetarian. In other words, quite inexplicably, you apparently wanted to promote meat eating as consistent with Buddhist practice. I wrote you asking about this, but received no response.

"In light of this background," Phelps continued, "I was overjoyed to read in April 2005 that you had announced to a wildlife conference in New Delhi that you had lately adopted a vegetarian diet on a full-time basis.

"Thus, as you may imagine, I was greatly dismayed to read an article from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel dated May 15, 2007, reporting that you had attended a fund-raising luncheon on May 3, in Madison, Wisconsin for the Deer Park Buddhist Center and Monastery. According to the article, the food served included veal roast, stuffed pheasant breast, and soup made with chicken stock. The chef told the reporter that you ‘chowed down' on everything you were served, including the veal. Veal calves are separated from their mothers just hours after birth, confined in tiny crates too small for them to turn around in, fed an iron deficient diet that gives them severe, painful, chronic anemia, and killed while they are still small children. When you ate the veal," Phelps told the Dalai Lama, "you lent your public support to some of the most egregious cruelty that our society is capable of.

"The lack of consistency between your public statements in support of vegetarianism and animal protection on the one hand and your personal behavior on the other is troubling," Phelps emphasized.


The Dominion of Love

Phelps' 2002 book The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights & the Bible was often compared to former George W. Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully's book Dominion, also published in 2002.

Like Phelps, wrote United Poultry Concerns founder Karen Davis in 2003, Scully "observes that the idea of human rights, like that of animal rights, is not a given but rather ‘a practical response to the most fundamental of all moral problems: Human evil.'"

But Phelps distanced himself from Scully, especially after Scully followed his stint for Bush by ghosting for avid hunter Sarah Palin.

"I think the fact that Matthew Scully wrote her (2008) convention speech, which was a masterpiece of viciousness, should give us all pause about the notion that conservatives will ever be serious animal advocates," Phelps said.

The Longest Struggle

Phelps' most ambitious book, The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA, appeared in 2007. Reviewing it, I criticized Phelps for overlooking the influence of Islamic thought on the evolution of attitudes toward animals during the Middle Ages.

longest_cover-136x194Our ensuing exchanges of e-mails appear to have piqued Phelps' interest in Islam––and in helping to encourage animal advocacy in the Islamic world. (See my review of The Longest Struggle and highlights of our e-mails at

E-mailed Phelps to me in October 2010, "I have an article in the current issue of SouthAsia magazine entitled ‘Animal Sacrifice in Islam,' in which I urge Muslims to fulfill the requirement for sacrifice by donating money or performing community service rather than killing an innocent animal. The article can be read online at In the left hand column, under Features, click on Sacrifice in Islam. As I'm sure you know, SouthAsia is a highly regarded English-language review of politics and economics published in Pakistan with a wide readership among opinion makers in Pakistan and among Pakistanis and other Muslims living in the west."

Phelps also praised one of the cover features for that edition of SouthAsia, "How expanding animal agriculture swamped Pakistan," without noticing that I wrote it.

One-Track Activism

Phelps' most influential writing and thinking was probably in an ever-evolving series of conference addresses, essays, and online postings about vegan extremism, published under titles including One-Track Activism: Animals Pay the Price and In Praise of "The New Welfarism."

"I am not a moderate on the subject of animal rights," Phelps stipulated. "Our treatment of nonhuman animals is profoundly immoral, and the goal of the animal rights movement must be nothing less than to establish worldwide a fully moral relationship between human beings and all other animals.

"A moral relationship to animals would have two elements," Phelps outlined. "It would be based on moral parity between humans and nonhumans, and it would involve no human exploitation of other animals.

"Entirely about strategy"

"The controversy between abolitionists and new welfarists is not at all about goals; it is entirely about strategy," Phelps argued. "Even worse, this dispute is not taking place between people who advocate one strategy and people who advocate a different, separate strategy. Both sides support abolitionist advocacy, and both sides agree that abolitionist advocacy, primarily in the form of vegan campaigns, is the heart and soul of the animal rights movement.

"Rather, the dispute is between activists who insist that everyone in the movement pursue abolitionist advocacy exclusively and activists who believe that abolitionist advocacy should be supplemented by reforms that ease the suffering of animals whom we cannot liberate in the foreseeable future, and by outreach to consumers who are not yet willing to make the move to veganism, but might be persuaded to reduce their consumption of animal products.

"To put it another way," Phelps explained, "it is between activists who want to impose their own rigid, ideologically based orthodoxy on the campaigns of the entire animal rights movement and those who want to take a more flexible and pragmatic approach."

"No boundaries in time or geography"

Essential to recognize, Phelps said, is that "Animal exploitation is the most widespread and deeply entrenched form of injustice in the history of the human race. Animal exploitation has no boundaries in time or geography. We emerged from the shadows of the preliterate past with spear and bow in hand and livestock in captivity.

"There is no society known to history," Phelps reminded, "that did not enslave animals and kill them for food, fabric, labor, transportation, entertainment, religious sacrifice, and/or scientific knowledge."

However, Phelps continued, "Animal rights is the only social movement in history whose beneficiaries cannot participate in it and whose participants cannot benefit from it."

For that reason, Phelps wrote, "The animal rights movement has no access to the indomitably motivated and endlessly renewable resource that has been available to every other social justice movement: the victims themselves. In fact, its membership is drawn entirely from the ranks of the oppressors. Think of the challenge that the abolition movement would have faced if it had had to depend entirely on reformed slave owners for its activists. That is the challenge facing animal rights.

To get past the stone walls

"Most people believe that their health, happiness, and prosperity depend on the abuse and murder of animals. And they will fight to defend these against what they see as dangerous, hostile attacks by radical fanatics.

Farm Animal Rights Movement founder Alex Hershaft (FARM photo)

Farm Animal Rights Movement founder Alex Hershaft (FARM photo)

"Abolitionists have been seduced by a theory," Phelps warned. "And the theory that possesses them says that the means must always be logically consistent with the goal. This sounds reasonable, but it is simply not true. One-track activists are easing the pain of their own cognitive dissonance by adopting a consistency so rigid that it loses touch with the real world. One-track activism ignores the fact that converting people to animal rights is not primarily a matter of logic. It is primarily about finding our way around the formidable social and psychological barriers that we have erected to defend animal slavery and slaughter. This is why pursuing multiple approaches is essential.

"To get past the emotional, cultural, familial, and social stone walls that keep people from hearing and acting on the abolitionist message," Phelps assessed, "we need philosophers and activists like Gary Francione and Alex Hershaft, founder and president of the Farm Animal Rights Movement, conducting exclusively abolitionist advocacy. They define the goal and assure that we keep it clearly in view. They make sure that we do not become so wrapped up in our pragmatism that we lose sight of the target. And they reach the people who are open to the vegan message. But we also need groups like PETA, the Humane Society of the U.S., and Farm Sanctuary, who are simultaneously reaching out to people who react negatively to pure vegan advocacy. Sadly, those people are the vast majority of the population. But unless we can bring them on board, abolition will never become a reality."

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