2022 Ann Cottrell Free National Press Club Animal Reporting Award Winners
Winner: Mesa Monkey Farm, Rob O’Dell, Arizona Republic
After receiving a tip from a former University of Washington research scientist, Bob O’Dell of the Arizona Republic began a seven month investigation into conditions inside the Washington Primate Research Center located in Mesa, Arizona.
He found that mortality rates at the largest pigtailed macaque breeding facility in the United States had spiked in recent years, with 47 deaths and hundreds more infections. His reporting not only raised questions about the placement of the breeding center - for monkeys that thrive in humid rainforests - in the middle of the parched desert, but also the viability of tens of millions of dollars of research on animals infected with disease, including Valley fever.
O’Dell also learned that the water supply at the facility is polluted with a rocket-fuel chemical called perchlorate, from an adjacent missile manufacturer, and recommendations to install a water filtration system were ignored.
His reporting also uncovered other problems at the facility, including, high staff turnover, low morale, a sexual harassment scandal, financial mismanagement, violations of state and local regulations and citations of at least five monkeys dying because of poor care or improper oversight.
After O’Dell’s Arizona Republic investigation, which spurred complaints about the facility, the National Institutes of Health opened a federal investigation into the Center.
Honorable Mention: USDA accused of ignoring animal welfare violations in favor of business interests, Rachel Fobar, Wildlife Watch, National Geographic
Rachel Fobar’s reporting illustrates how the U.S. government often fails to ensure the well-being of animals who are supposed to be protected by federal law. By telling the story of the Monterey Zoo, where government inspectors deleted evidence of several potential animal welfare violations after a 2017 site visit, she reports on allegations that USDA officials prioritize business interests over enforcing the Animal Welfare Act.
She interviews several former USDA inspectors who spoke about feeling pressured to hide or downplay animal welfare violations, and she also found data that showed that between 2015 and 2020, U.S. enforcement actions brought against licensed animal facilities fell by 90 percent.
Shortly after her story was published, lawmakers introduced a bill that would require more frequent and meaningful inspections of dog breeders, more confiscations and suffering dogs, and imposition of fines.