What Becomes of Animal Rights Activists After the Action Is Over?

Peter Young and Justin Samuel helped launch a new era in the fight against fur. Then they went their separate ways.

It was love that brought together Peter Daniel Young, Justin Clay Samuel, and Allison Anne Porter in the mid-’90s—a love of animals, primarily, but also a love of action, and maybe another kind of love as well. Porter was a biology major at the University of Washington and the oldest of the three. She had started the Students for Animal Liberation, an animal-rights organization on campus that attracted Samuel, a student who grew up in Snohomish, and Young, a kid from Mercer Island who didn’t attend UW but took part in the campus group’s actions.

There were others. Many others. The Pacific Northwest in the 1990s served as a breeding ground for animal-rights activism. Nests of activity formed in population centers like Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, and Eugene, while increasingly recognized groups such as the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front (ALF) cross-pollinated with lesser-known groupings of home-brewed activists. The wave largely rose from here, sucked in other eddying currents of popular discontent, and crashed across North America.

Yet not all animal activists were the same. In fact, the factions within the animal-rights community were, and still are, often in conflict. Some are known as “welfarists”: activists who take a more moderate approach, their focus on improving the welfare of animals. More radical sorts maintain a “liberationist” or “abolitionist” mindset, undertaking animal-rights actions that grew increasingly confrontational throughout the decade and continue to do so.

It is these activists who are responsible for direct actions in which animals are released or rescued from facilities, often targeting ranches that raise mink and other fur-bearing animals for their pelts. By the watershed year of 1996, the expanding opposition was roiling with energy. The time was right: Fur’s public favor had fallen precipitously, and the fur trade hung low as a ripe target for the Northwest’s motivated activists. Opponents targeted both the supply (through ranches, designers, and retailers) and demand (through public campaigns like PETA’s highly influential ad campaigns using celebrities like Pamela Anderson) for goods made with fur.

This is the kind of activism that Porter, Young, and Samuel were drawn to, eventually leading the latter two to a series of ranch raids that would place them on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List, facing decades behind bars and massive fines. That threat drove the three, at least for a time, far apart and underground. Each would come to represent an archetype of the aging radical activist: the Fanatic, the Snitch, and the Ghost. Porter, Young, and Samuel, though, have each transformed their lives in the decades since. Their journeys offer a view of what comes after the action, and perhaps what awaits a new generation of activists operating in their wake.

Determining what happened to these activists back in October 1997 and in the years since has become an important part of my research for a book about the global fur trade and the animal-rights movement. I have spoken with activists of many motivations and backgrounds about a wide range of subjects, and with hundreds of people within the fur trade. The rise of “ranch raids,” and these three individuals in particular, have popped up again and again.

This subject inspires paranoia from activists, ranchers, fashion designers, scientists, politicians, and even consumers, both foreign and domestic. In no small part that paranoia stems from erroneous assumptions about my interest—understandably, because I grew up on one of those ranches. A big one. In Wisconsin, where my family raised primarily mink but also foxes, dating back to 1917. My family left the fur business a few years ago, and now I’m researching and writing about it while trying to convince people on all sides that I’m unbiased. Not an easy sell, as I’m sure you can imagine.

My research took me to a few dozen states and a handful of countries. Among an almost embarrassingly long list of pursuits, I’ve dug into archives, pulled public records, attended conferences, and interviewed people with views of the fur trade from inside and out. I’ve also interviewed Young and Samuel independently more than once within the past five years. On some level, I assume everyone thinks I’m working for “the other side”—no matter where they sit.

Among notable animal-rights activists in the 1990s, Rodney Adam Coronado stands apart. His early and widespread influence on the anti-fur movement across North America has been well documented, including in the book Operation Bite Back: Rod Coronado’s War to Save American Wilderness by Dean Kuipers. As detailed in the book, Coronado was involved in an ALF campaign beginning in 1991 and went to prison for arsons at Oregon State University in 1991 and Michigan State University in 1992, where he targeted each school’s mink research and farm facilities. Coronado even posed as a prospective mink rancher and infiltrated the Renton-based Seattle Fur Exchange, now known as the “American Legend Cooperative” and one of the five remaining auction houses in the world where pelts are sold to buyers from across the globe. As recently as 2010, Coronado was sent back to prison for violating the terms of his parole when he accepted a Facebook friend request from another activist. The list of his actions goes on and on.

Perhaps Coronado’s most enduring influence, though, comes from a list of mink ranches across North America he began compiling in 1990 with the now largely inactive Coalition Against Fur Farming. Published as a zine called The Final Nail, the list was first released in 1996. He visited mink ranches across Oregon, Washington, Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Michigan to gather addresses, phone numbers, and physical descriptions. Final Nail guides activists to this day, its list updated and expanded by other community members. The most recent printed version (#4) was released in 2013, although the Final Nail website added Canadian farms more recently and seeks ongoing crowd-sourced updates.

But while the list has changed, the standard approach to a North American ranch raid hasn’t. Most mink ranches are the same, with cages hung off the ground in long sheds that contain multiple rows and are generally surrounded by a fence. In a typical raid, ranch raiders arrive under cover of darkness; the cages, each of which typically houses one mink, are opened; and fences are cut. There is no attempt to rescue the mink, in no small part because they bite hard and are difficult to handle. Instead, the animals are left to compete for survival in the wild.

These tactics and targets were still fresh when Young and Samuel hatched a plan to go on a cross-country series of ranch raids in October 1997. The Final Nail documents provided everything from a “How To” which gave instructions for raids to secondary considerations like “Media Work,” guidance for sending communiques seeking coverage. The duo had no special connection with mink farms. It was a choice driven by the information available to them and mounting legal pressure they were facing.

At the end of August 1997, the Mercer Island house that Young, Porter, and Samuel had been squatting in was raided by Seattle Police. The three were booked for criminal trespass, along with a long list of local animal-rights-related crimes for which they were among the suspects. This added to the pressure to leave. “Together we decided it [was] too hot for us to continue [in Seattle],” Young told me recently.

“When we talked about getting out of state, all we had was The Final Nail,” Young says. “There was no Final Nail for slaughterhouses, there was no Final Nail for pheasant farms, or any number of targets we could have chosen. But we did have The Final Nail, and we knew we had to leave town, and we knew we weren’t going to stop saving animals—all of that intersected at the fur industry.”

Yet only Young and Samuel jumped into a red Geo Metro, purchased by all three and titled in Porter’s name, to begin their liberation road trip. As Porter seemingly fell into the background, Young and Samuel traveled the country for two weeks, releasing an estimated 8,000 mink from six ranches in three states.

The Zimbal Minkery, not far from the shore of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, was the final target, but not by design. The Zimbals, then and now, have one of the largest mink ranches in the United States, and multiple generations of the founding family have lived in the area. They were identified in that first Final Nail as having had 400 mink released during a raid in January 1996. As would become the norm, activists using the list would return multiple times to the same ranch—sometimes to gather intelligence (for example, whether a ranch had shut down), and sometimes to strike.

This past summer, Linda Zimbal retraced the route she had taken that October day 20 years ago. The circuit around their property and into the tiny nearby town of Oostburg, north of Milwaukee, measures only a few miles. Zimbal says she spotted the red Geo Metro driving by while she was cleaning her living-room windows. In that pre-Internet time, the approximately 300 mink ranches across the United States passed information using a phone tree. Families who raised mink anywhere in America had been told to be on the lookout for the red Geo Metro.

Zimbal hopped in her van and called the police on her “bag phone.” She followed the car into town, and watched Young and Samuel dumpster-dive outside a grocery store. It was there that the first police arrived to stop and question the pair. Zimbal snapped a few pictures before their car was impounded. Young and Samuel were lean then (and still are two decades later); there’s an unmistakable intensity in their eyes in those pictures. “I remember them just glaring at me,” Zimbal said.

Samuel and Young were not caught in the active commission of a crime, and before a warrant could be obtained to search the vehicle for evidence that would connect them with earlier ranch raids, they were released. They didn’t even attempt to get their car back. From there, two lives on the run began. The pair quickly split up, and their paths never directly crossed again. Samuel got money from someone for a bus ticket to Washington, D.C., then to New York City. After obtaining a passport, he flew to England and crossed into Europe. From there he traveled extensively, writing about it in a zine he titled World Within, dated January 1999. In the meantime, he and Young were placed on the FBI Most Wanted List, which was passed on to Interpol. In Belgium, Samuel was recognized by law enforcement at a nuclear-disarmament rally. He was arrested and extradited back to the U.S. in September 1999.

Young’s journey is not as well documented, and he is reticent to talk about that time. Whatever he did, he managed to avoid capture until 2005, when he was arrested by an off-duty cop who saw him shoplifting CDs from a Starbucks in San Jose, California.

“When they ID’ed him,” Linda Zimbal said, “his last name was ‘Zimbal’ ”—Young had used her name for his fake ID. “Which always made me think, ‘How brazen.’ ”

Samuel and Young received similar sentences, the only real difference being the amount they were expected to repay to victims: Samuel was sentenced to two years and a Restitution Order of approximately $364,000; Young received two years and an RO of around $254,000.

Young served his time and was released in 2007. As a free man, he maintained a fanatical focus on animal-rights activism, amid other attention-seeking endeavors. He has expanded The Final Nail lists while traveling extensively, speaking regularly at animal-rights conferences where he calls for aggressive direct action, maintaining websites including the Animal Liberation Frontline, and pursuing numerous writing projects. In September 2014 Young launched another website, jetsettingterrorist.com. It was meant to be anonymous, but he was quickly exposed. He has written a book based on that website, which he intends to begin selling this fall.

An elevated, if controversial, figure within the culture of activism, Young’s example was followed by at least one other activist I spoke to. Kevin Olliff, who was caught and convicted for releasing mink from a single Illinois ranch in 2013, told me that Young’s past actions were hugely influential. Olliff, who was arrested with another activist, Tyler Lang, is part of the new generation of direct-action activists who often end up with criminal convictions. Kellie Marshall and Victor Vanorden, from Austin, Texas, traveled to Iowa in 2011 and were apprehended and convicted for attempting a raid at a ranch targeted by Young and Samuel in 1997. Joseph Buddenberg and Nicole Kissane are currently in Federal prison in California for a series of releases in 2013, after being apprehended in 2015. And the raids are ongoing: In mid-July on the hottest day of the year, a raid in Minnesota resulted in the release of at least 38,000 mink, making it the largest such action in the history of the fur trade.

While Young has been an influence, Olliff and other activists I interviewed had a different description for Samuel: “snitch.”

This reputation originated when Samuel gave grand-jury testimony while incarcerated in August 2000, after extensive questioning about assistance he received while on the run. The widely shared view within the animal-rights community is that Samuel’s testimony would someday be used against Young.

Even now, Samuel tops the list of “U.S. Informants” on the website of Earth First!, one of the most recognizable and longest-standing groups tracking direct actions. Other examples come up with surprising regularity in far-ranging locations. For example, in July 2013, at a Buffalo, N.Y., bookstore run by former ALF spokesperson Leslie Pickering, Young and Samuel were used by presenters from an Occupy Wall Street group to describe how to act when questioned by the cops. The question was raised: “Can a snitch ever be forgiven?” The answer was simple: “No.”

After his release in November 2001, Samuel attempted to return to his prior life in activism. He moved to California, and eventually found that his testimony had poisoned the well of goodwill in the activist community. “There was a controversy years ago surrounding individuals who had accepted Justin Samuel into their circles in San Diego,” says Olliff. Stories of Samuel’s failed effort to rejoin the community segue into an itemization of other activists who talked to the cops. No one, it appears, can recover from that characterization.

Samuel’s ultimately unsuccessful reintegration led to a new journey. He received a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Arizona, followed by a master’s from Berkeley. He married, worked while in grad school for Mozilla, and got seed funding in October 2012 to start his own computer-security company. In mid-2014, Samuel returned to Seattle.

Meanwhile, Porter had become a “ghost” and disappeared for some time, according to Young. “People stopped hearing from [Porter] right when Justin got arrested,” Young says, when we compared experiences trying to find her over the years. “The thought was her loyalties were with Justin. The timing was that maybe she was taking a side.”

As for Samuel’s and Young’s Restitution Orders, it appears that much remains outstanding and may never be collected. According to the Department of Justice’s Mandatory Restitution Act of 1996, ROs are enforceable for up to 20 years and could result in a return to prison if left unpaid. Yet so much time has passed in the cases of Samuel and Young that some of their victims have gone out of business, or even died.

Young says he has repaid only $1,080 of his $254,000 order, and the Western District of Wisconsin’s U.S. Attorney’s Office confirms this amount. The amount Samuel repaid, if any, has never been verified, by him or by the Department of Justice.

“[My lawyer] said flatly, ‘the government is not a collection agency,’ ” Young says now, going on to explain what he was told: “The burden falls on the fur farmers to sue me civilly. If you don’t make any money in the first few years after you get out of prison, the government is very unlikely to pursue you on [the farmers’] behalf.”

In the summer of 2015, I reached out to Samuel when I was in the Bay Area. I wanted to get his comments on the then-recent arrests of Buddenberg and Kissane for a long series of ranch raids. Samuel replied politely, as he has in all our text exchanges, but said he was “not available at all this week.” “I’m feeling very moved-on from the past,” he wrote.

In some ways he had; in others he hadn’t. Samuel divorced his wife in August 2013 and moved to Seattle the next year—where, I would later learn, he was sharing an apartment with Porter, who had also recently ended a marriage that began in 2001, a few months before Samuel’s release from prison. In the summer of 2015, Porter bought a house in West Seattle, and in September 2016, the two married. This summer the couple sold that home and bought a six-bedroom, four-bathroom home north of Seattle for $1.175 million.

“There was no question [Samuel and Porter] were a couple,” Young says when confronted with the news that his former confidantes had married. Young says now that he was more focused on activism than Samuel, and even went so far as to offer that his “19-year-old self” believed that “romance during that period was counter-revolutionary.” “To the extent that anyone around me was in a relationship, I considered it to be a distraction from the mission,” Young says. “I felt Justin was to a large extent only participating in the things we were doing because of his relationship with Allison. On a philosophical level, he was, quote, ‘interested’ in what we were doing. But on a warrior level, I don’t think he was that interested. The fact that he was with Allison, I remember thinking, ‘Well, at least this motivates him.’ ”

For his part, Samuel wouldn’t talk to me about Porter at any point since our first meeting in 2012. And he wouldn’t talk to me at all this summer. Communications have gone dark.

“I learned not to be surprised by anything,” says Young, who claims to now be in the business of software and technology. “I’m including myself. I think people look at me and think, ‘He runs a software business?’ People’s lives take some interesting turns.”