2021 Ann Cottrell Free National Press Club Animal Reporting Award Winners
Winner: A Gruesome Betrayal, Paul Pringle, Alene Tchekmedyian and David Pierson, Los Angeles Times
A tip from a dog lover led to a yearlong investigation by Los Angeles Times reporters Paul Pringle, Alene Tchekmedyian and David Pierson that produced shocking findings about celebrity animal protection activist Marc Ching. Los Angeles-based Ching was celebrated as a rescuer of dogs from meat markets in Asia, where they are butchered for human food.
Ching was famous for posting horrifying videos and photos he shot of dogs being burned to death with a blowtorch, hanged and beaten, and otherwise brutalized in the slaughterhouses. The images helped Ching raise millions of dollars for his foundation, with the backing of some of the biggest names in Hollywood
The LA Times reporting, which included interviews with sources in nine countries on three continents, unearthed solid evidence that Ching staged some of the most gruesome scenes of animal torture and killings in Asia, and that he fabricated or exaggerated claims of abused dogs.
The reporters found he also caused suffering in animals in California. He convinced owners to stop veterinary treatments and switch to using food and supplements from Ching's own pet store. These were treatments for illnesses such as diabetes, bladder stones and cancer. Their time without those treatments caused needless suffering and could have led to death.
Complaints from veterinarians languished until the Times' stories were published. Within months, prosecutors brought charges of practicing veterinary medicine without a license.
As a result of the trio’s reporting, Los Angeles prosecutors charged Ching with a variety of crimes and he was convicted in August. The Times investigation of Ching and his Animal Hope and Wellness Foundation also triggered a criminal probe by the California attorney general’s office and an inquiry by the FBI.
Honorable Mention: Series of stories on threats facing animals around the world, Douglas Main, National Geographic
There are more threats facing wildlife than ever before, and National Geographic reporter Douglas Main has done an outstanding job of informing the public about them. In a wide-ranging series of reports in 2020, he told the stories of many under-appreciated but very real threats to animals such as the devastating impact of the border wall between the United States and Mexico.
His reporting shows how 30-foot-tall fencing in Arizona, more than 200 miles of which was built since March 2020, cuts off wildlife corridors and uses massive amounts of water for concrete and dust suppression—700,000 gallons per mile of wall in some places. Large sections have been electrified, with light poles piercing the dark wilderness. This attracts and kills insects in large numbers and interferes with the movement and behavior of nocturnal animals.
His stories also detail the extinction of one of the world’s largest fishes, the Chinese paddlefish, the serious danger to brown bears posed by the construction of a mineral mine in the Alaska wilderness, and the illegal trade of colorful Cuban painted snails, which threatens their survival.
Main has been told that his reporting has resulted in action and has had impact, such as being a factor in the decision not to approve the construction of Pebble Mine in a pristine and beautiful part of Alaska.
Winner: Harp Seals, TJ Holmes and the production team at ABC News Good Morning America
As part of a series of stories designed to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day in 2020, “Harp Seals” by correspondent TJ Holmes and the production team at Good Morning America, is a powerful and tragic illustration of the dire threats facing animals affected by climate change and global warming trends.
The crew traveled by helicopter to a remote part of Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada, landing on an ice floe where a herd of harp seals had been spotted. Escorted by an explorer from the National Geographic, they were able to come within inches of baby seal pups, some only hours old. Their reporting showed that the survival of the species is tied to the reaction of the ice in the gulf to climate change trends: if the ice is too thin, it fails to support the early development of the new brood of seals, leading to a massive population decline. Weak ice breaks up too soon, causing seal pups to drown or get crushed between the adjusting floes.
Their reporting gave viewers a real-world example of human impact on the world’s climate, the consequences affecting the fragile lives of harp seal pups and countless other species.
Honorable Mention: Rabbit Run, Jim DeFede, CBS Miami, WFOR-TV
Rabbit Run documents the efforts of a small group of animal protection activists working to expose the secret training practices within the greyhound racing industry. For years there had been rumors and unconfirmed reports that kennel owners were using live jackrabbits to train greyhounds. It was a brutal practice that dated back decades, in which dogs were taunted and teased by trainers holding the jackrabbits. The dogs were then released and allowed to chase down and kill the rabbits.
Over the course of six months, CBS Miami tracked the activities of the animal rights group Grey2K as they sought to expose this practice that the industry had claimed was banned more than twenty years ago. Independent of Grey2K, CBS Miami found key players behind this training, and confronted industry officials about their willingness to turn a blind eye to the practice.
In the days and weeks following the report, three of the trainers had their licenses suspended and ultimately revoked, thereby permanently barring them from racing or training greyhounds in the future. Criminal investigations remain active in several states. And there has been a new push in Congress to ban greyhound racing in the United States.