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News / Life / Pets & Wildlife

L.A. activist Marc Ching and his foundation exaggerated tales of animal abuse, vets and rescuers say

By Alene Tchekmedyian and Paul Pringle, Los Angeles Times
Published: January 3, 2021, 12:45pm

LOS ANGELES — Days after an abandoned puppy was found near a San Bernardino elementary school with acid burns on its face, animal activist Marc Ching posted a devastating update on his charity’s Facebook page.

The brown, floppy-eared dog named Riley, who would later become the namesake of an animal rights bill, also had been sodomized, he wrote.

“I bawled my brains out,” said Sedna Moseley, the dog’s foster owner, who at the time worked as a veterinarian technician at Loma Linda Animal Hospital. “I remember just thinking, how could somebody do this?”

But Moseley, who went on to adopt Riley, learned later that examinations by two veterinarians determined Ching’s claim that the dog had been sodomized had no merit.

“Marc didn’t need to make up anything extra — the truth was more than horrifying,” Moseley said. “He used my dog to make money.”

Moseley’s experience with Ching was not an isolated one. In interviews with the Los Angeles Times, veterinarians and animal rescue workers said Ching’s Hollywood-backed Animal Hope and Wellness Foundation in Sherman Oaks exaggerated or fabricated stories of abused dogs.

The veterinarians and workers cited emotional social media posts in which Ching’s charity promoted his efforts to rescue injured and neglected animals here and to free dogs and cats from slaughterhouses in Asia that butcher them for human food. The posts are among many that helped make Ching a hero in celebrity circles, and his charity has collected millions of dollars in donations.

California law prohibits charities from engaging in deceptive fundraising practices.

Ching, 42, and the foundation’s board of directors did not respond directly to emailed questions for this story. Their attorney, Russell Selmont, said some of the information about abuse that the foundation publicized originated with other people or groups in the animal rescue community. In Riley’s case, the foundation was told of the sodomy by a woman who transferred Riley to the foundation, Selmont said.

The woman, who runs a local animal rights group, told The Times she learned from someone at a veterinary hospital where Riley was examined that the dog showed signs of rectal trauma, but she could not recall the name of the person or the hospital. She said she never had possession of the dog.

Natalia Soto, a Studio City veterinarian, said Ching asked her to examine Riley after his treatment at the Loma Linda hospital, and she confirmed that the puppy had not been sodomized. Ching’s charity continued to make the claim on its Facebook page.

The head of Thailand-based Soi Dog Foundation, John Dalley, said Ching’s foundation falsely claimed online in 2016 that one of eight dogs Dalley gave the charity had its limbs severed at a Thai slaughterhouse. Ching also posted on Facebook a photo of himself at an airport in Thailand with eight dogs in airline transport cages with the hashtag, #DogsFromTheMeatTrade.

Dalley said he had told Ching none of the dogs was from the meat trade. He said most were injured in road accidents.

“Our adoptions manager gave him a bio of each dog,” Dalley said.

Selmont said the foundation made “an unfortunate but honest mistake” in posting false information about the limbless dog. He noted that the erroneous post was made by Valarie Ianniello, the former executive director of Ching’s foundation.

Ianniello, who did not accompany Ching on the Thailand trip, told The Times she based the post on what he told her. She said she came to doubt such heartbreaking tales, including one in which he claimed to her that a puppy with a prolapsed rectum had been raped with a beer bottle.

“The stories are just created,” Ianniello said. “And I would fight with him about it all the time.”

Selmont said the foundation was told by a group that provided the dog that it was assaulted with a beer bottle. “The foundation recently inquired with the group that sent the dog to the foundation and they continue to maintain the dog was violated with a bottle,” Selmont said.

A woman he identified as a representative of the group told The Times in a text message that she receives background information about dogs she provides to Ching’s foundation from animal control officers, police, shelters or people who find the animal. She did not respond to questions about the beer bottle incident.

Last year, Ianniello filed an anonymous complaint to the state attorney general’s office alleging troubling financial practices, including that the foundation made misleading and deceptive claims in soliciting donations.

“Animal Hope and Wellness exaggerates their efforts on social media in order to gain donations. Describing dogs having been abused, spray painted, sodomized, etc… When there is no proof for that,” she wrote, according to a copy of the complaint reviewed by The Times.

Ianniello said she did not receive a response to the complaint until after The Times published an investigation of Ching in May that exposed troubling financial practices by his charity, including the withdrawal of more than $350,000 in cash from the foundation. The newspaper also found evidence contradicting Ching’s heavily publicized claims about the authenticity of videos he recorded and shared showing dogs in Asian meat markets being tortured and killed in horrifying ways.

Ching and his foundation used some of the images in a searing 2016 public service announcement narrated by Matt Damon, Joaquin Phoenix and other Hollywood celebrities that denounced the limited but enduring trade in Asia of slaughtering dogs and cats for human food.

But butchers in Indonesia who were featured in a video that showed them blowtorching a dog told The Times that Ching paid them to hang the animal and burn it to death — a manner of killing more cruel than any they say they normally employ — so that he could stage the scene for the camera. Animal activists who work in Asia and speak out against the dog meat trade said dogs are not routinely tortured and killed in the ways Ching claimed they are on a regular basis.

Ching has denied the butchers’ allegations and said he never paid anyone to hurt dogs. The foundation said Ching used the large sums of withdrawn cash to pay for dog rescues and veterinarians on his trips to Asia and to cover other legitimate costs. It did not provide details or documentation for the expenditures.

In April, the Federal Trade Commission accused Ching of making false or deceptive claims that an herbal supplement he was selling could treat COVID-19 and that some of his other products could treat cancer. Ching denied wrongdoing. In July, he agreed to a settlement in which he is barred from making baseless claims that his products can treat COVID-19 or cancer.

Los Angeles prosecutors filed charges against Ching in September after the newspaper uncovered years of complaints by veterinarians that he persuaded pet owners to abandon prescribed treatment regimens and instead give their ailing dogs and cats products he sells at his for-profit pet food store, the Petstaurant.

The city attorney’s animal protection unit has charged Ching with seven counts, including practicing veterinary medicine without a license and false advertising. If convicted, Ching faces up to 6 1/2 years in prison and $13,500 in fines, a city attorney’s office spokesman said. He is due in court in March.

Outrage over the abuse of Riley contributed to Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian’s effort earlier this year to introduce legislation dubbed “Riley’s Law” with another nonprofit Ching founded, Animal Hope in Legislation, as a co-sponsor. The bill would have allowed courtroom advocates to represent the interests of animals in criminal proceedings involving animal cruelty.

Nazarian, D-Van Nuys, said he was troubled by the allegations against Ching, as well as the erroneous claim his foundation repeatedly touted that Riley had been sodomized.

“It’s disheartening because you’re placing your trust in someone that you’re working with,” Nazarian told The Times. “The reality is I still believe that there’s merit to these issues.”

He said the bill was put on hold because the COVID-19 pandemic has shortened the Legislature’s schedule, and he’s uncertain whether he will push the measure forward next year.

If he does, he said, Ching will no longer be part of the effort.

Riley, a brown-furred pit bull mix, was found in 2017 with acid burns on his face near Monterey Elementary School in San Bernardino.

Lydia Savala, founder of a small Orange County rescue charity named Poochmatch, arranged to get the puppy treated at Loma Linda Animal Hospital. Soon, she was in touch with Ching, who offered on behalf of his foundation to pay for an expensive jaw surgery at the veterinary hospital where Soto worked.

Ching’s foundation publicized Riley’s story on Facebook with new, heartbreaking details: “He was beat, sodomized, jaw shattered. As he was left to die, they poured acid on his face.”

The foundation’s posts about Riley sparked international revulsion and brought more attention to Ching’s charity. Animal lovers from as far as Australia demanded authorities bring Riley’s abusers to justice. No one was ever arrested.

Savala and Moseley, the Loma Linda animal hospital vet tech who went on to adopt Riley, said Ching told them the attack was part of a gang initiation, although he provided no evidence of that. They said Ching also told them that he hired two investigators to help find the perpetrators and that his veterinarian discovered Riley had been sodomized.

Soto, the veterinarian who examined Riley on Ching’s behalf, said she made no such finding.

“It was not true,” Soto said of the sodomy claim, adding that she made it clear to the foundation at the time. “I told them I never found any evidence that that happened.”

Selmont did not respond to a query about the gang initiation claim. He said Soto examined Riley “many days or weeks” after the foundation became involved, at which point the wounds had healed and thus evidence of the attack was not noticeable. But medical records show Soto examined Riley eight days after his rescue and four days after the dog was released to Ching. Soto said the trauma Ching described would not have healed in that time to the point that the injury was undetectable.

Moseley, who was involved in Riley’s treatment at Loma Linda, said no one at her animal hospital found evidence suggesting the puppy had been sodomized.

The Times examined Riley’s medical records for that period and they contain no mention of rectal trauma.

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Damage to Riley’s brain from his abuse eventually caused seizures, Moseley said, and the dog, who was 3 years old, died in January.

In February, Nazarian introduced Riley’s Law. A day later, Ching’s foundation once again went on social media to claim that Riley had been sodomized.