Letter to the Editor re “Oregon Zoo Tiger…Dies”

Letter to the Editor re:Oregon Zoo Tiger, 15, Suffers Apparent Seizures, Dies
Submitted: March 26, 2014
News outlet: The Register-Guard

The Oregon Zoo recently announced that 15 year old tiger Nicole has died.  According to the Zoo’s announcement, Nicole was born at the John Ball Zoological Garden in Michigan in 1998 and was transferred to the Oregon Zoo in 2000 where she remained until her death.  Her brother Mikhail remains on exhibit at the Zoo.

Nicole was thus a captive her entire life and never knew that being a tiger does not necessarily mean existing merely to amuse and be gawked at by humans or that tiger habitat generally does not include coffee stands and gift shops.  She likely did not know that her experience as a tiger was incredibly unique even if she knew all too well that it was painfully, perhaps mind-numbingly, shallow.

In the death announcement Oregon Zoo officials praised her for her docile nature as she was reportedly quite compliant for procedures such as blood draws and dental work.  By a captor’s logic, docility is the highest of virtues and yet there was no possibility of her ever being released for “good behavior”.  Her zoo experience rendered her dysfunctional and dependent, unable to live a normal tiger life in the wild, unable to live free of those who confined her.

She was born into captivity and she died in captivity.  It is the least glamorous and most depressing of tragedies.

Is There No Room for Rod Coronado in the Animal Rights Movement? The Problem with Veganism as the Moral Baseline

It is almost difficult to believe that the accomplishments of Rod Coronado can all be attributed to a single person with abilities not too different than our own; in this way he has demonstrated what is possible.  It does not take superhero powers to sink a whaling ship, light a match, or set an animal free from a cage.  It does, of course, take a fair amount of bravery to put one’s beliefs into action but that is well within our abilities.

Rod Coronado has dealt serious body blows to the whaling industry, the fur industry, and the animal experimentation industry.  Animals who seemed destined to spend their lives in locked cages only to meet violent deaths were set free by a stranger who arrived in the night, risked—and ultimately—sacrificed his freedom to give them a chance to be free.  The mind reels at what an animal be must be thinking and feeling as a cage door is opened by a stranger, her torment is over, and she escapes into the night.

 Having been released from prison and now off of probation, Rod Coronado is once again defending animals.  With the profile he has created for himself and the scrutiny he will forever be operating under, his tactics, at this point, are exclusively within the confines of the law.  Coronado is currently engaged in a speaking tour aimed at building momentum amongst the grassroots to stop wolf hunting in states where it is currently legal.

But is He Vegan?

But there is a lingering question about Rod Coronado that many animal rights activists can’t help but worry about: Is Rod Coronado currently vegan?  In 2006, he told the LA Weekly that he was not vegan at that time; he was also not vegan during his time as a fugitive. On the current speaking tour, Coronado was asked  by Jon Hochschartner if he was currently vegan and Coronado said he was not. (I was not present at that talk at Skidmore College but did see Coronado speak in Eugene, Oregon where the question was not raised.) The question has also been raised and vigorously debated in various online venues. Comrade Black conducted an interview with Coronado for Profane Existence regarding the current speaking tour and was criticized for not explicitly asking if Coronado is vegan.

The question then becomes what to  make of this fact: Rod Coronado is not vegan.  One who strictly adheres to the notion of “veganism as a moral baseline” would necessarily have to condemn Coronado. [1] [2] Such condemnations run the risk of dismissing what Coronado has done, and continues to do, for animals.  It may prioritize his consumer choices over and above the fact that his actions for animals have indisputably saved lives and served as inspiration for others to perform similar actions; and it is not an abstract set of animals that Coronado has “saved” but particular individuals. 

The “veganism as a moral baseline” idea is most commonly used to demarcate “us” and “them”; it goes beyond the claim that veganism is praiseworthy or even morally obligatory and posits the veganism is the litmus test for credibility and participation within the movement.  Deviating from a vegan diet (or perhaps more accurately a vegan lifestyle) cannot be compensated for with other actions.  If Coronado is not vegan, then he can and must be dismissed; his actions on behalf of animals are essentially irrelavent in this discussion.  Theoretically he could have delivered a knock-out blow to the fur industry and we could be living a in a world free of fur farms and his non-vegan diet would nonetheless mean that he was not one of “us” (animal advocates  in good standing) but essentially still one of “them” (animal exploiters).

This not only seems bizarre to me but also depressingly self-defeating.  Is there genuinely no room in the animal rights movement for Rod Coronado?

Excommunicating Ex-Vegans?

To be clear, I would fault Coronado for consuming animal products but could not deny that he is fighting more passionately for the world I want to see than I am.  The animal rights movement need not excommunicate someone for deviating from veganism; at some point we came to feel as though we must but we really do not have turn people away like this.  At the same time, letting go of the “veganism as the moral baseline” idea does not mean we should stop promoting veganism.  Veganism can be zealously promoted while simultaneously accepting the support and the participation of nonvegans and ex-vegans in an animal rights movement.  We may see wider acceptable of veganism if people are allowed to participate and share what is in their heart before they have radically altered their diet.

“Veganism as the moral baseline” may simply create an unnecessarily high barrier to entry into the animal rights movement.  As Dylan Powell recently wrote “An issue…that should have a broad focus gets presented through a very specific and normative lens and typically one that is very demanding”.  The demandingness likel y satisfies our ego but may do so at the expense of the overall movement.  Furthermore, it is an idiosyncratic demandingness: foregoing dairy creamer is perhaps demanding in some sense but liberating animals from cages and risking imprisonment is demanding in a whole different way.  Perhaps both are morally obligatory but the former is expected according to the “veganism is the moral baseline” catechism while literal liberation is not even consistently lauded (as it happens, many of “veganism as the moral baseline” adherents would would likely condemn such an act as violence).

A Movement Without Allies

The full threat that Rod Coronado has represented is his commitment to earth liberation, animal liberation, and indigenous resistance.   The ability of someone like Rod Coronado to unite these movements is a real danger to industries that exploit the earth and its animal constituents.  As he explained in the Profane Existence interview, “animals and nature…are ground up by the same machines” and so opportunities for solidarity between these movements are everywhere.

Yet “veganism as the moral baseline” dogma effectively eliminates the possibility of the animal rights movement building meaningful alliances with other social justice movements even ones as closely related to its aims as earth liberation and indigenous resistance. 

The animal liberation movement has proven itself quite skilled in finding enemies but given the industrial scale of the atrocities compared with the meagerness of our resources, we would be wise to start looking for friends.

Conclusion: Rod as Reductio

In the end, it is my claim that any movement dedicated to animal rights and/or animal liberation, that does not have room for someone like Rod Coronado is seriously flawed to the point of being almost incoherent and self-defeatingly insular. The example of Rod Coronado serves as a reductio ad absurdum argument against the “veganism as the moral basline” position.  If Rod Coronado is not for animal liberation, then no one is.


NOTE: Future dates on Rod Coronado’s speaking tour include:

  • Thursday March 20th Oakland CA. 7PM at The Holdout: 2313 San Pablo Avenue, near 23rd ST.
  • Friday March 21st San Francisco CA. 7pm at The Eric Quezada Center for Culture and Politics: 518 Valencia Street, near 16th Street BART.
  • Saturday March 22nd Animal Liberation Forum in Long Beach CA at 12pm.
  • Sunday March 23rd Animal Advocacy Museum in Pasadena CA. at 6pm.
  • Monday March 24th Fresno State University at 6pm, building TBA. 
  • Thursday March 27th Humboldt State University.
Rod Coronado at Strong Hearts Cafe in Syracuse, NY (www.strongheartscafe.com)

Rod Coronado at Strong Hearts Cafe in Syracuse, NY (www.strongheartscafe.com)

WIRED Advises We Submit to Tech’s Embrace

In two recent opinion pieces appearing in WIRED (March 10, 2014), the publication’s tech enthusiasts have seemingly taken on the tone of rape apologists or perhaps the tone of rapists and abusers themselves. The articles are titled: 

“Why You Should Embrace Surveillance, Not Fight It” 

“Tech That Tracks Your Every Move Can Be Convenient, Not Creepy” 

Kevin Kelly, author of the first article mentioned above as well as the book What Technology Wants, explains that “ubiquitous monitoring and surveillance will be the norm” and “there’s no stopping it”. There’s no stopping it so we might as well try to relax and enjoy it?

He assures the reader that “a massively surveilled world is not a world [he] would design” but also that “mass surveillance is coming either way.”  It’s coming either way, resisting would simply make things worse for us.

In a surprisingly honest assessment, Kelly explains that mass surveillance is inevitable because it “is the bias of digital technology”. This is a departure from the usual line offered by tech enthusiasts/apologists that technology is neutral and that its consequences—good or bad—hinge entirely on how people choose to use it. So for Kelly to explain that digital technology is biased toward mass surveillance and not really humor the idea that a free choice is being made therefore has the sound of an admission or confession.

Kelly argues that such mass surveillance would be preferable if it was reshaped into what he calls coveilance: a situation where everyone is watching everyone else as opposed to surveillance where one group monitors another.  Coveillance is mutual (but presumably not consensual) and consequently less onerous; it means we all keep each other in check.  Without trying to write satire, he defends coveillance by pointing out that “for eons humans have lived in tribes and clans where every act was open and visible and there were no secrets” and so consequently “there wouldn’t be a backlash against a circular world where we constantly spy on each other because we lived like this for a million years”. Mass surveillance is apparently just like band society!  And so if it’s done properly “it can feel comfortable.”

Moving on to Sean Madden’s article “Tech That Tracks Your Every Move Can Be Convenient, Not Creepy”.  Madden may indeed be less outwardly creepy than Kevin Kelly.  His article, on the surface, encourages tech designers to pay greater attention to consumer desires; there is less emphasis on the fact that we lack choices.  It’s a softer, savvier approach toward a similar end.

Madden rightly points out that in many contexts a high level of control can be perceived as creepy and thus alienating; the danger being that this might potentially cause consumers to withdraw.  In his example, current technology allows visitors to Disney World to share information so that costumed characters can greet children by name. But at least for the moment, this level of pseudo-familiarity may not be welcomed on city streets. What’s magical at Disney World is creepy elsewhere.

But Madden tips his hand when explaining that this is “just as much a design problem as it is an ethical one”.  I can’t help but read that as an attempt to reduce an ethical problem to a design problem; the technoculture consistently seeks technical answers to what are fundamentally not technical problems.

If this sounds like a less than charitable interpretation of Madden’s perspective, there is additional support for such an interpretation later in his article as he explains that “designers will have to make opt-in the norm, rather than opt-out. Designing to nudge patrons towards a behavior means demonstrating its value, not removing or stripping away alternatives.”

Designers therefore need to create an environment, set the mood, and cue the music in just the right way so as to “nudge patrons towards a [desired] behavior”.  The sophisticated Madden realizes that to get a “Yes” it is most important to give the impression that one is free to say “No” and that this is to be done “not just in words, but in visual elements, user experience, and more.”