Operation Bite Back

Was animal rights activist Rod Coronado a victim of over-reaching prosecution – or did he get exactly what he deserved?

Operation Bite Back:  Rod Coronado’s War To Save American Wilderness By Dean Kuipers Bloomsbury 320 pp., $25.            

Often working under the cover of darkness and beneath the banner of clandestine groups like Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF), Rod Coronado sought to liberate captive animals from fur farms and research facilities. He also ran with people who spiked trees to prevent forests from being logged, rammed whaling vessels to save leviathans, and burned ski lodges to protest development in lynx habitats.

Acting on his faith and convictions, Coronado served as architect for a form of sabotage now infamously known as “monkeywrenching.”

For all of it, the United States government threw the book at Coronado, labeling him an ecoterrorist and sending him to prison. Never mind that after Coronado served his time and got out, he started a family and repented for many of the things he had done in his shadowy past. Set aside, too, that his defenders are still convinced that federal agents made him a scapegoat in order to send a message.

Regardless of how one views Coronado’s deeds or crimes, his legend remains intact and it is this rich terrain – as fascinating as it is disturbing – that journalist Dean Kuipers traverses in his new book, Operation Bite Back: Rod Coronado’s War To Save American Wilderness.

By drawing upon his years of experience as an environmental journalist covering protestors, by winning Coronado’s trust, and then pouring through court records and law enforcement files, Kuipers cracks the code of a paradox that has, until now, prevented the public from understanding the ways and motivations of radical animal-rights activists.

In many ways, this book is a breakthrough, for it offers a glimpse into the workings of the ALF and what Kuipers calls “its punk-anarchist sibling,” the ELF.

The narrative is certainly provocative in this post-9/11 era when society and law enforcement officials have arrived at a different definition of what constitutes domestic terror. As Kuipers notes in striking a somewhat sympathetic contrast, Coronado never adopted hurting people as part of his method of operation, unlike convicted left-wing Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and right-wing, antigovernment murderer Timothy McVeigh, executed for blowing up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and killing 168 people.

Coronado’s modus, which he claimed was always animated by a spirit of “non-violence,” was to inflict property damage. He was part of a decentralized movement, loosely held together, that in recent decades has committed over 1,200 acts of sabotage and caused an estimated $1 billion in damage.

The title of Kuiper’s book is drawn from a covert plot, implemented by Coronado and associates, to free thousands of mink at fur farms and labs across the country. What becomes a source of endless bedazzlement for the author is how a man, so charming, sincere, and righteous in so many ways, could resort to behavior that clearly crosses the lines of lawbreaking and civility.

But is it terrorism?

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of “Operation Bite Back” is its analysis of the way various laws – including the Patriot Act – have been employed, with encouragement from natural resource extraction industries, to target individuals as enemies of the state who previously had been treated as criminal mischiefmakers.

“I was from a different generation, where we believed there was a hard-line difference between ecoterrorism and civil disobedience,” Coronado tells Kuipers. “I hadn’t really taken into account how this government’s new antiterrorism legislation would be applied to radical environmentalists and animal rights activists.”

Kuiper’s book hardly settles the controversial question of whether Coronado himself was a victim of overreaching prosecution aimed at quieting environmentalism, or if he got exactly what he deserved. The author does, however, make a timely point by asking: Should the Rod Coronados of the world be grouped in the same category as members of Al Qaeda?

Todd Wilkinson lives in Bozeman, Mont., and is writing a book about Ted Turner.

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