Back in May, the Los Angeles Times published an expose that Marc Ching, a well-known and until then beloved “animal activist” allegedly fighting cruelty in the Indonesian dog meat industry, was a fraud. It provided evidence that Ching, who spent nearly a decade in prison for a violent crime before joining the movement, staged videos of dogs being killed, including blowtorched alive, for personal gain.
Recently, the L.A. Times published a follow-up with evidence that Ching also persuaded people “to abandon a prescribed treatment regimen and instead give their ailing dogs and cats products he sells at his for-profit pet food store in Sherman Oaks.
“More than a dozen Los Angeles-area veterinarians and others who care for animals told The Times that Ching’s actions threatened to harm — and in several cases did harm — pets they were treating for conditions such as kidney disease, heart failure and cancer.”
He’s not the only one.
Steffen Baldwin, a well-known and until recently also beloved “animal activist,” was recently indicted in Ohio “in a 42-county felony indictment which includes charges of cruelty to companion animals, grand theft, bribery, telecommunications fraud, tampering with evidence and impersonating a peace officer. The charges are related to the deaths of at least 18 dogs.”
According to a second report, “Baldwin’s goal was to be a star on Animal Planet, by any means necessary, investigators say, even at the expense of animals, he had pledged to protect.” He is alleged to have promised to rehabilitate dogs and either took money to do so or fundraised off of the dogs, even as he had them killed, but continued to tell people they were “alive and well.” A third report notes that Baldwin (who also goes by the name Steffen Finkelstein) left Ohio for California as investigators there began looking into the matter.
That both men hurt a lot of animals is, of course, the most devastating part of their alleged cons. To the extent the evidence proves true, animals died and in the case of Ching, in some of the most horrific ways imaginable. But Ching and Baldwin also hurt a lot of people — people who believed in them, put their own reputations behind them, promoted them, funded them, and worst of all, entrusted them with animals to the animals’ detriment.
Both men were considered “rock stars,” a term I hope I never hear someone in this movement being called again. Because if there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that we need to stop creating cults of personality by lionizing individual people and individual groups and instead shift our focus to elevating principles and institutionalizing lifesaving. Even under the best of circumstances, we can never truly know another’s heart. Humans are fallible. They are also capable of being manipulated. People who we respect can get it wrong. They can also change, become corrupted by power or their proximity to power, causing them to shift priorities so that we while we may believe it is safe, given their history, to defer to them, their calculations and allegiances are no longer in line with the animals.
Of course every movement relies on people. There is no getting away from that. And there are a lot of good people doing a lot of good things, many quietly going about their work of saving lives, keeping the animals first and foremost in their focus. But while I’ve no doubt that such corruption is part of every cause, sometimes it feels like the animal protection movement has had more than its fair share: Ingrid Newkirk, Wayne Pacelle, and Ed Sayres, to name just a few. And if recent reports from the L.A. Times and others are accurate — and the evidence does appear incredibly damning — in a movement where corruption of mission has long been endemic, and where national groups are often little more than rackets, Ching and Baldwin showed us that there truly is no bottom.
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