He answered the call of the wild

Stillman's latest book is "Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West," now in paperback.

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a ship strays into uncharted waters and an albatross appears out of the mists, guiding it to safety. At first a savior, the albatross is soon blamed for the ship’s misfortune, and the mariner shoots it with his crossbow. A plague of terrors visits the crew, dice are thrown to determine the mariner’s fate, and he is finally cast ashore to wander the Earth, doomed to recount his deed to wayfarers along the path.

Over time, countless animals have died for our sins, our greed, our wants and our desires, and we bury the stories, for it is impossible to have them in our hearts. Every now and then, however, someone is cast forth to not just deliver the news but also to act on behalf of the wild ones. In recent years, our mariner has been Rod Coronado, whose story is told in the important, fascinating new book “Operation Bite Back” by Dean Kuipers, a Times editor. Haunted by the fate of wild things endlessly pursued, trapped, farmed, flayed, caged and tormented for their pelts, their organs and their secrets, Coronado believed we were all culpable in the obliteration of animals if we did not intervene on their behalf. For him, that meant heading directly to the front lines of the war against what’s wild, freeing the four-leggeds and then returning under the guise of another persona to publicize the deeds -- a schizophrenic situation that led a friend to describe Coronado as the great fictional superhero, Superman.

The book follows Coronado along the warrior path, from whaling stations in Iceland through the punk scene in London (pivotal lyric of the era: “We say all sentient beings have the right to live, free from pain, torture, and suffering”) and animal prisons in remote pockets of the American West, where livings are made as lives are taken and the acts appear only on accounting logs. How can a man ask for God’s favor, Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote in his story “The Slaughterer,” when he destroys other creatures for profit? Ultimately, Singer’s character embraces all that “crawls and flies, breeds and swarms”; in another Singer story, a character suggests that, for some animals, life is an “eternal Treblinka.”


Coronado’s alliance with four-leggeds was forged when he first saw them in their natural state during family trips to the California wilderness as a child. Part Yaqui Indian, he was later drawn to books such as “Geronimo’s Story of His Life” and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” which led him into a deep kinship with his native brothers and sisters, one that would ultimately provide sanctuary and solace as his campaign to liberate animals escalated and he became a wanted man.

After a stint with Paul Watson’s Sea Shepherd Crew (now featured on Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars”), Coronado hit the road and spent a decade infiltrating the fur industry, venturing in and out of charnel houses where minks and foxes languished as they awaited their fate, apologizing to coyotes and other incarcerated animals he could not free as he and various accomplices made off with the caged, sleek-coated critters. Along the way, he destroyed documents and set fires and attracted many to the “green anarchism” of the Animal Liberation Front. His activities also led to a crackdown by law enforcement, which apparently included the dissemination of misinformation (for instance, the announcement in a leaflet that he was “armed”) and byzantine post-9/11 laws that have elevated vandalism to terrorism (to the dismay of various jurists). As Kuipers notes, the new laws could even result in the author himself getting into trouble for talking about some of the charges against Coronado, who recently finished a one-year sentence related to his answering a question about making an incendiary device during a 2003 speech in San Diego.

And yet, Coronado himself has had a change of heart, one that has involved the full spectrum of his Native American experience, from an early vision quest in sacred Lakota territory to more recent journeys on the Yaqui reservation in Arizona. While he was a fugitive during the 1990s, he issued a statement offering himself in an exchange for “grizzly bears held hostage as experimental subjects” by a particular university and asking for the suspension of tax-funded research on mink, coyotes and otters at other colleges. The sign-off on that letter was: “In the spirit of Crazy Horse.” But three years ago, while serving time for freeing a mountain lion from a leg trap, Coronado sent another letter to friends and supporters. By then, he was married and had a son. The letter contained no language of retribution or anger. Rather, he renounced direct action, writing that violence begets violence and that that was not a lesson he wanted to pass on -- an echo of the old mariner, unexpectedly channeled in modern times by Iron Maiden, who sang that “we must love all things that God made” -- an awesome ring tone, if ever there was one (and there is).

Still there comes disturbing news: A fur craze in China has led to a wave of cruel bobcat trappings in the West, wild horses in government corrals were recently shot and killed by persons unknown, and canned hunts continue across the land. As Kuipers notes, it was almost as if Coronado were asking to be relieved of his burden when he wrote that letter. But now, thanks to this book -- a significant chronicle of our time -- the bloody tale has been passed on to the ages, and perhaps one man’s heavy heart can be lightened, even if our war against what’s wild goes on.