As an undercover investigator on a U.S. fur farm, Rod Coronado had an epiphany that changed his life. He needed footage that would generate negative publicity for the fur industry, and he finally got his chance to film the slaughter and pelting. But to get those images he had to stand by and watch as minks were killed.

He was overcome with guilt. He felt he had betrayed the animals, writes Dean Kuipers in Operation Bite Back: Rod Coronado’s War to Save American Wilderness. Kuipers takes us through Coronado’s thought processes after the horrific scene:

Destroying this industry would not mean passing legislation. He would blow it off the face of the earth—using any tactic that didn’t physically harm animals or people. Sabotage. Theft. Cleansing fire. Whatever it took. He would stretch the definition of nonviolence to its breaking point.

Now in his 40s, Coronado has officially renounced sabotage, identifying it as a violent tactic. Having already been caught and punished for his role in a rash of arsons, he wrote a letter to his supporters when he was facing additional charges in 2006. Here is part of that letter:

In my years past I have argued that economic sabotage was an appropriate tactic for our time. Like all strategists I have also been forced to recognize that times have changed and it is now my belief that the movements to protect earth and animals have achieved enough with this strategy to now consider an approach that does not compromise objectives, but increases the likelihood of real social change. Let our opposition who believe in violence carry the burden for its justification, but let those who believe in peace and love practice a way of life that our society sorely needs now more than ever.

Did Coronado mean what he was saying, or was he just hoping for lenience? Can a person’s outlook really change so drastically in one lifetime? Who is right—the Rod Coronado of the 1990s or the Rod Coronado of 2006?

Los Angeles Times editor and long-time environmental journalist Dean Kuipers has followed Coronado’s story for about 20 years. In Operation Bite Back, he documents his subject’s journey from daring activist to threatened fugitive to private person. He also uncovers what he calls a “brave new world” of draconian antiterrorist legislation, enacted in part because of Coronado’s case. Crimes that once brought only a few years’ imprisonment can result in decades-long sentences. The deciding factor is whether the “criminal” believes in animal rights or Earth liberation—two different but related struggles, both of which come into play in the book.

Coronado destroyed 32 years of fur industry research data at Michigan State University in 1992—it was one in a series of strategic attacks on university laboratories that were using captive wild animals. He pleaded guilty as part of an agreement that meant he wouldn’t be prosecuted for the other raids. He spent four years in prison, having refused to turn in any of his fellow activists in the Animal Liberation Front’s Western Wildlife Unit.

He had no regrets when he appeared on the Toronto-based radio program Animal Voices in 2000, the year following his release. When host Mirha-Soleil Ross asked him why he’d targeted the fur industry, his voice was full of conviction.

I’m a member of the Pascua Yaqui nation. And as an indigenous person, the fur trade represents so much more to me than just animal abuse. It represents cultural genocide. They were the foot soldiers of an invasion and conquest of the New World. ... I have an incredible empathy with the animals that are on fur farms and in the wild in steel-jaw leg-hold traps because they are my relations, and they are suffering just as my ancestors suffered, and the fur trade today is the modern incarnation of those very same people who murdered and destroyed my people and my homeland.

Coronado told Ross that he’d never tried writing letters or signing petitions because he’d known from an early age that “the situation required immediate action. ... There was no time for those animals suffering in labs and fur farms and factory farms to wait to exhaust more legal means.”

The Animal Liberation Front Credo and Guidelines, which appear on a number of direct action-oriented websites, explain what the ALF is and what it is not: it’s not an organization, but an underground movement composed of independent “cells.” ALF activists liberate animals from situations where they are destined for lives of suffering and eventual slaughter. They carry out economic sabotage to make animal exploitation less profitable and to deter would-be animal exploiters from doing business. Targets can include fur farmers, meat farmers, dairy farmers and vivisectors.

“Any group of people who are vegetarians or vegans and who carry out actions according to ALF guidelines have the right to regard themselves as part of the ALF,” states the Credo. The guidelines mandate that ALF activists “take all necessary precautions against harming any animal, human and non-human.”

Coronado has been called an “eco-warrior”; he’s also been called an “eco-terrorist.” In Operation Bite Back, we learn that his childhood hero was Paul Watson. Watson is a founding member of Greenpeace who fell out with the organization in 1977 and now sails the world protecting the ocean’s creatures—or, as some might say, enforcing vigilante justice.

Coronado joined Watson’s crew as soon as he had the chance. When he was 20, Coronado and a colleague sank a whaling ship in an Icelandic harbour on behalf of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Watson took responsibility for the action. No one was charged because Iceland didn’t want to call attention to its whaling activities.

Kuipers paints a generally positive picture of Coronado, but he stops short of idealizing him or defending every Bite Back action. He strongly suggests that a few of Coronado’s actions were failures that either harmed living beings or came very close. Unlike most journalists who cover these issues, Kuipers isn’t smug or condescending when he makes these statements—that’s why it’s so hard to dismiss his conclusions.

Steve Best is a University of Texas philosophy professor who has pioneered the field of critical animal studies. He has published two books on the subject of direct action in the animal rights and Earth liberation movements, and he counts himself as a direct action supporter. His first book, Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, explores different definitions of terrorism and the double standard that so often comes into play when the “terrorists” are protecting nonhuman victims. Best asks:

What precisely is terrorism? What causes it? Who engages in it? Should terrorists be identified according to their intentions, ideologies, tactics, or targets? Who wreaks the most violence? When is violence justified so it is not ‘terrorism’? How is terrorism different from assault, murder, and other violent ‘criminal’ acts? Were the world’s most deplorable terrorist actions taken when the U.S. dropped two bombs on Japan during World War II?

Best is not among those who want to reform animal-based industries; his goal is to abolish all animal exploitation and stop humans from treating other animals as commodities. On this point, he is in agreement with Rutgers University law professor and animal rights theorist Gary Francione, who in recent years has spearheaded an “abolitionist” movement that rejects animal welfare reforms as a matter of principle. But the two scholars differ on the question of illegal direct action: Francione condemns it as violent. He and a faction of like-minded supporters have essentially dismissed Best and his ideas, and a number of hostile exchanges have taken place online. (Sometime last year, Francione and Best were set to hold an online debate, but that debate never took place. Each accused the other of backing down, and their respective factions posted venomous accusations and counter-accusations on various websites.)

Regardless of who is right or wrong about direct action and its place in the animal and Earth liberation struggles, government crackdowns on militant activists like Rod Coronado should concern anyone with an interest in civil liberties.

By 2006, Coronado had put his warrior days behind him and was busy raising two young children. He’d continued to participate in legal activism, often giving talks to community groups around the country, when he was arrested for destroying a mountain lion trap while out hiking. The trap was government property, and Coronado was behind bars again.

In 2003, during one of his activist talks, a woman in the audience had asked Coronado how he’d made his incendiary devices. He’d picked up an empty jug of apple juice and briefly explained how a simple container could be filled with gasoline and made to burn. For that answer, he was accused of promoting terrorism and threatened with 18 years in prison under newly introduced “sentencing enhancements.”

In 2007 Coronado was acquitted of “demonstrating how to make a destructive device with the intent that someone would commit arson.” But he’d delivered the same speech many times, in different states. Kuipers said “U.S. attorneys ... could just keep prosecuting him into oblivion.” Worn down, he pleaded guilty in exchange for a one-year sentence and was eventually released on probation—that is, until this past August, when he accepted a “friend” request on Facebook from a well-known environmental activist.

In the final chapter of his book, titled “The Green Scare,” Kuipers discusses a 65-count indictment in the vicinity of Eugene, Oregon, involving about 20 people. If Kuipers is correct, the use of new, sweeping antiterrorism legislation to intimidate and harass activists is a direct result of Coronado’s success in damaging the fur industry.

In an interview with Amy Goodman and Sharif Abdel Kouddous of the alternative news broadcast Democracy Now, Kuipers explains the latest charges against Coronado and the implications for the Eugene activists. What seems like a creative interpretation of parole conditions—or “guilt by Facebook association,” as Kouddous put it—would soon cost Coronado his freedom again.

“There are quite a number of people who are probably in the same position as Rod is in now,” said Kuipers. “There have been a lot of prosecutions of radical environmentalist activists over the last five years or so. ... A lot of those people went to jail. A lot of those people are facing the same kind of probation restrictions that Rodney has been facing and will now face again.”

Many supporters of violence against ‘animal exploiters’ are not themselves vegans. So it’s okay to use violence against other animal exploiters even when you’re an animal exploiter. This is certainly militant—militant hypocrisy.

It’s unclear who Gary Francione had in mind when he posted the above statement on Facebook recently, but it seems relevant here. By the end of Operation Bite Back, Rod Coronado is no longer vegan. The revelation comes in 2006, when Coronado is looking at a possible 18-year prison sentence and has chosen to withdraw from the public eye. He not only renounces direct action but eats an omelet in front of Kuipers, who doesn’t press him for an explanation. Readers are left to make sense of the conundrum on their own: how could a person who has already risked so much for animals not be willing to forego a bit of convenience in a restaurant?

There are conflicting accounts regarding the depth of Coronado’s earlier commitment to veganism. Kuipers suggests that although Coronado grew up hunting and fishing, he lived as a vegan for many years as an adult. Yet a statement he made to prosecutors before his sentencing for the Bite Back actions flies in the face of vegan values: “The belief that rocks, air, water and animals are all sacred does not mean I do not believe in their use or consumption.” Furthermore, Coronado publicly disagreed with Paul Watson when the Makah nation decided to exercise its treaty rights to kill whales off the west coast of the United States. Coronado supported the Makah.

A 1996 editorial in the direct action newspaper No Compromise defends Coronado against criticism from other activists, including allegations he wasn’t vegan and that he’d compromised his principles during a pre-sentencing speech.

Coronado had said many things to get a lighter sentence, the editors insisted. He hadn’t meant them. He’d made those statements so he could be free, and could begin saving animals again, as soon as possible. It was true that he had eaten animal products while on the run, they acknowledged, but he was vegan at the time of writing. “At NC, we judge people by their present—not past—actions,” they wrote.

But in a 2006 interview with LA Weekly reporter Susan Zakin, just before his return to prison for destroying the mountain lion trap, Coronado announces he is no longer vegan. As if to prove it, he orders a cheese dish and eats it in front of her.

My own reaction upon seeing the report was to doubt its accuracy, but it is strikingly consistent with Kuipers’ account from the same time period. While disappointing, Coronado’s apparent conversion from veganism is easier to understand in light of the other information Kuipers provides.

By maintaining a public face in the animal rights movement, by giving speeches that appeared to glamorize direct action, Coronado invited the wrath of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI was determined to crush the myth that surrounded him, a myth that continued to inspire a new generation of activists—hence the threat of spending two decades locked away from his family. Did he think alienating his supporters was the only way they would allow him to “retire”?

Some readers will undoubtedly ask whether non-activists can judge Coronado. Can we ever understand the stress and fear he must have experienced as he was preparing to go to prison for an indeterminate stay? But such excuses fall flat when the subject is a world-famous eco-warrior.

Throughout the book, Kuipers makes it clear that the environmental ethic of “deep ecology” informed Coronado’s activism at least as strongly as animal rights theory—maybe more so. The two belief systems often conflict. Coronado drew criticism from other animal rights supporters relatively early in the story, after buying out one of the fur farmers he’d investigated. The predators were released into the wild after a rehabilitation process that involved the killing of prey animals. (To be fair, Coronado’s dilemma at the sanctuary was not very different from that faced by conventional wildlife rehabilitators—or even those of us who feed domestic cats.)

Despite all he accomplished, it’s possible that Coronado’s vegan ethic may have been stronger in myth than in reality. While that is a lesson animal advocates can learn from, it seems unfair to treat him as just one more animal exploiter.

Kuipers stresses throughout his book that Coronado always targeted property, not life. And it was talking, not sabotage or violence, that forced him out of activism altogether.

“The lawyers tell me I’m OK writing about it in a book,” Kuipers quips. “But I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

While I’m not an activist myself, and probably never will be, I’ve occasionally sent supportive letters to activists on animal rights prisoner lists. I always learn something new when I read their stories on the Internet, and I’m always struck by their kindness and concern for others despite their difficult circumstances. Most do remain vegan, even in prison. Some ask supporters to show their support by assisting animal rescue groups. Many have used the publicity surrounding their cases to draw attention to other prisoners who are also victims of injustice.

Surely prison should be reserved for the worst offenders, not for people who have worked all their lives to improve society and to educate others about injustice. Dean Kuipers should be commended for bringing these issues to light.

Written by Eileen Cahill. Originally posted in the ARK Forums in November, 2010.