Environment

Hero for Animals or Eco-Terrorist? One Man's Lifelong Mission to Be a Voice for the Wild

From sinking whaling ships to rescuing minks from fur farms, Rod Coronado has devoted his life to protecting wildlife.

Depending on who you talk to, Rod Coronado is either a true American revolutionary or one of the world’s most infamous eco-terrorists. Coronado, a member of the Pascua Yaqui tribe, has dedicated his life to being “a voice for the wild” by sabotaging commercial enterprises such as whaling ships and fur farms, and the universities that support their work. While this choice may have benefited the causes Coronado champions, he has also endured more than six years in prison, convicted of what the government calls crimes of conspiracy and sabotage. He calls it “direct action.”

A free man again, Coronado is now the leader of Wolf Patrol, an organization that supports recovery of gray wolves in the lower 48 states. While his methods now tend to fall on the legal side of things, to say Coronado has mellowed would be incorrect. I sat down with Coronado to discuss his past direct actions, the demonization of wolves and what people can do to help wild animals.

Brian Whitney: You have described yourself as a 'contemporary revolutionary.' How did you first become involved in activism?

Rod Coronado: I first became involved with activism when I was 12 years old after being exposed to the ways humans commercially exploit wildlife. Whaling, seal hunts and trapping were the issues that demanded action within myself, so I joined the only group I could find that was actually trying to stop these things: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. I approved of their direct action approach, such as Sea Shepherd’s Paul Watson's ramming—and later sinking—of the world's most notorious pirate whaling ship, the Sierra, in 1979.

BW: You sank a few whaling ships yourself when you were a teenage member of Sea Shepherd. Can you talk a little bit about what their goals were?

RC: In 1986, I was 19 years old. A few years earlies, anti-whaling activists had achieved a monumental victory with the passage of the International Whaling Commission's ban on commercial whaling. This was the product of years of lobbying and hard work by international activists and it was immediately called into question by countries such as Japan and Iceland, who vowed to violate the ban and continue whaling. We acted by sabotaging Iceland’s only whaling station and sinking two of the whaling ships that had carried out the violation.

Rod Coronado in the Salmon-Challis National Forest in Idaho, while investigating a federal Wildlife Services lethal control order on wolves accused of killing sheep grazed on public lands. (photo: Joe Brown)

BW: You were also involved with the Animal Liberation Front, a clandestine, leaderless animal rights group that the FBI called a 'serious domestic terrorist threat.' What are ALF’s goals and what exactly did you do as a member?

RC: I led an active cell for many years. The way I was taught, ALF began as a British movement, whose goals were simple: rescue animals from abuse and cause economic damage to those abusing them. For my cell, the Western Wildlife Unit of the ALF, this meant carrying out a nationwide campaign of sabotage against universities and commercial enterprises engaged in the raising of animals for their fur.

We targeted mink and fox farms, where tens of thousands of animals are held in tiny cages until they are gassed for their fur. We targeted commercial feed suppliers to these fur farms. We targeted universities engaged in research to eliminate obstacles to the fur farm industry. We acted not as animal rights activists or environmental extremists, but as warriors who had committed our lives to the elimination of suffering and abuse that we saw within our sphere of being.

BW: One of the criticisms of ALF is that sometimes they break into fur farms and simply release the animals into the wild, though these animals are unequipped to survive in the wild. Is that something that ALF has considered?

RC: That was a big question we often addressed. Economically speaking, you can do great damage to a fur farm simply by releasing the animals. But I've been on dozens of these farms before, and I know that if you release 5,000 mink in one place, they are going to fight and kill each other, not to mention decimate the local prey population. This is why I never did this. Instead, I've taken mink, bobcats and lynx and rehabilitated them before releasing them in small numbers back into their natural environment. As an ALF warrior, I believed it was our job to provide more security to fur farm prisoners than simply opening their cell door.

BW: What is the biggest misconception that people have about animal rights?

RC: I've given up on "animal rights," because it’s not a biocentric movement. Biocentrism recognizes the impact human activity has on all life, not just animals. I don't believe someone is absolved of animal suffering just because they are vegan. Living in a developed nation like the U.S., there are many ways we contribute to suffering beyond our choice in diet. If someone truly believed in animal rights, they couldn't live peacefully or sanely, knowing what is being done to animals, they would take action—direct action.

So if you call yourself an animal rights activist, in my opinion, you are committing to do more than just using your first-world privilege to make different consumer choices. You are saying that the treatment of animals in our society is unacceptable and you are going to do more than just pass judgment on Facebook.

BW: What is the easiest thing the average person/consumer can do to help animals?

RC: Stand up for them as if they were your own family members. I know people want to hear “stop eating them,” but it’s not that easy. I see vegans all the time who go to extreme limits to observe their veganism, but think little of the fossil fuel industry they still support, or question their (mostly) white privilege that still separates them from the natural world and recognizing how much violence they still benefit from by being a privileged first-worlder. Everything we consume is the product of suffering, just some products less than others.

BW: You have done some very extreme things in your past in the name of your causes. Many people, no matter what their cause, like to talk about what they believe in, but are unwilling to put their freedom on the line for it.

RC: We have an obligation to act against wanton violence and destruction, whether it be legal or not. You can rationalize against it, because that's the only thing someone can do to absolve themselves of that responsibility. You have kids. You have your job. You have your degree to work on. But those are all excuses because you know, deep in your heart, what you should be doing. Frankly, I have little faith in the human race, which is why I have chosen to fight for other species. Action, not words, is what the world needs most right now.

BW: In 2006, you sent an open letter to supporters from prison arguing for social change without using violence or destruction as an activist tactic. How did your experience in prison change you?

RC: Prison was a very traumatic experience. It also was my greatest fear, beyond even death. I knew if I followed my heart, and did the things I knew I must—whether as a member of Sea Shepherd, ALF or under any other name—that I would most likely go to prison. So I did, four different times, for a total of six years. We live in a world where laws say you are a terrorist if you free an animal from an abusive situation. You are a criminal if you release an animal from a cruel trap. These are the rules under "the invader,” and such is the situation for all indigenous traditionalists, who believe in their own world instead of that forced down our throats through centuries of colonization and oppression. So my choice is to do as I desire and spend the rest of my life in prison, or find a way to fight that allows me to stay free. It’s purely a cost/benefit analysis. I am worth more to the wolves free than in prison. So prison has taught me that we have to evolve and learn how to fight in new ways.

BW: It says on Wolf Patrol’s website that you advocate for 'wildlife being a public trust resource, that belongs to no one human demographic, but to the entire biological community.' Can you break that down a bit?

RC: Wolf Patrol's constituents are not our financial donors or other humans, but the wolves themselves. We choose to represent them as they are, not as humans define them. They are apex predators, with a vital role in maintaining a healthy environment. Wolves deserve to exist for their own reasons, not because of the economic benefits of hunting or watching them, but because they have their own genetic calling, which tells them to return to, where they were once hunted to extinction.

I personally don't care how many cows, sheep or hunting dogs are killed by wolves, because those animals do not belong on the landscape in the first place, except to serve the needs of one species: us. Wolf Patrol is simply a voice for the wild.

Wolf Patrol's Rod Coronado documents hound hunters driving illegally on closed trails in Bayfield County, Wisconsin; Sept. 17, 2015. (photo: Wolf Patrol)

BW: Wolves are regularly demonized in the media and popular culture. What is the biggest misconception that people have about wolves and what can be done to rehabilitate their image?

RC: I think the same misconceptions about wolves that led to their extinction last century, are still being promoted and believed today, largely because of the traditional Christian belief that animals exist for human purposes and do not have worth independent of humans. The only difference between then and now is that now we are seeing those misconceptions acted on in a very modern manner. So, rather than wanton slaughter, we see “managed harvests” of wolves.

Many people still fear wolves, simply because they are a large predator acting outside of human control. What we can do to change that is to educate young people, especially those living in wolf territory, about wolf ecology and all the “new” things we are learning about wolves and other animals. People are still very human-centric and do not view the natural world as its own community, living independent of humans. Until we change the way we view the natural world, we as a species will continue to treat it as property.

Check out Wolf Patrol’s YouTube channel.

Watch Sea Shepherd Captain Paul Watson discuss the sinking of the Sierra:

Watch the 2006 documentary "A.L.F. Behind the Mask: The Story of the People Who Risk Everything to Save Animals":

Brian Whitney's writing has appeared in Paste Magazine, The Fix and Pacific Standard Magazine. He is the author of the book "Subversives in Their Own Words" (Headpress, 2017).