It's 4 a.m. in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Marc Ching has put his cash and passport in his hotel safe — in case things go south on this morning's mission. It's typical for him to clock only a few hours of sleep over the course of a week on one of these trips. "Every day I'm saturated with blood," he says.
Ching heads out of the hotel, carrying a backpack that contains a change of "dump-and-go" clothes. The 37-year-old Hawaii native has short, black hair, a compact and muscular build, and a brow that's permanently furrowed. He joins his driver and translator in a cargo van, puts in his earbuds and starts listening to a playlist of melancholy songs, from Aquilo's "You There" to Erik Jonasson's "Like a Funeral." It helps him connect and empathize with the dogs he's going to try to save.
The van crawls away from the city and bumps along rural roads for more than two hours before arriving at a slaughterhouse near the Mekong River. Ching hangs back while the translator touches base with the boss of the operation. The air is thick with mosquitoes; April is the hottest month of the year, and temperatures already are rising.
Soon a truck arrives, stacked with long cages full of dogs, their paws and muzzles sticking out through the wire grates. As the cages are loaded onto a dolly one at a time, the dogs whimper and whine. They're wheeled into the slaughterhouse as toddlers and women holding babies look on. Sheltered by a roof but open on both sides, the killing floor is wet and dirty. Large bowls of boiling water are bubbling and steaming atop individual fires; Ching knows what will be coming next.
This isn't his first time in a slaughterhouse. He's prepared for the horror, at least as much as one can prepare for something so shocking. He likens his state of mind to that of soldiers in war. "They don't really think about the small things that are happening," Ching says. "Their body's kind of in overdrive."
As the workers use steel poles to herd the dogs out of the cages, Ching stands with arms crossed in front of his chest, holding his iPhone in his hand as he covertly documents the scene.
The images will join an archive of more than 300 videos and 5,000 photos Ching has shot overseas in less than a year. Since September 2015, he's made six solo trips to China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea. His M.O. in each case is similar: Employing a driver and a translator to help with logistics, he goes undercover as a dog-meat buyer, visits slaughterhouses and documents torture. Then Ching tries to leave with as many dogs as he can.
"There's this moment where you come into the slaughterhouse and the dogs are screaming, and when you rescue them they know who you are," Ching says. "And it's the most beautiful thing ever. That moment's actually pretty addicting."
He's witnessed dogs burned alive with blowtorches, scalded to death in boiling water and beaten with bats while hanging by their necks. And he says he's been assaulted, shot at, hospitalized and "almost died, like, four times."
Ching has rescued 349 dogs overseas in eight months, he says, but less than a third of them have made it back to the United States. He says the majority of them die in his arms en route to the vet, which can be a four-hour car ride away. He once rescued a dog that had had all four legs cut off (letting the dogs bleed to death is one way they're killed).
"She just bled out on the way to the vet and died," Ching says. "To me, at least you know someone's with you. You don't die in a place of hell."
When he's not on rescue missions to Asia, Ching runs an organic pet food store and holistic treatment center in Sherman Oaks, out of which he also operates a shelter for abused dogs. Up until August of last year, before he went on his first mission to Asia, "My life was perfect," he says. He's been married for more than seven years, has two healthy kids and owns multiple businesses.
"Someone asked me, if I knew how it was going to change my life, would I have done it still," he says of his rescue missions. "No. I believe in the cause, but the way it impacts your life ... I wasn't prepared for this."
Warning: The video below includes footage Ching captured on his missions and is extremely graphic.
Inside the Petstaurant on Van Nuys just south of Ventura, several recovering dogs — some of them with three legs, missing eyelids and patchy fur — are sprawled out on beds, shyly curled up in corners and nuzzling volunteers.
There's Frankie, a 12-pound poodle mix who found her way to Ching's care by way of L.A.'s East Valley Animal Shelter. Her owners allowed her to become infested with maggots. There's Jack, a 40-pound mixed breed who, when Ching found him in Thailand, had a leg so badly fractured that it had to be amputated. Then there's Annie, a 2-year-old survivor of the South Korean meat trade, who had her leg hacked in a slaughterhouse.
Ching's own journey, from leaving his native Hawaii to setting up his shelter in L.A. to going undercover overseas, has been as remarkable as that of the many dogs he's rescued. He says he felt a calling to come to the aid of these animals. "A lot of us have suffered to become who we are today," he says. "I feel like I'm trying to save myself."
Ching was born to a teenage mother who gave him up for adoption. He says he went on to suffer from "identity issues," getting into drugs and trouble as a teenager. Some of this turmoil is evidenced by the many tattoos that wind their way up his biceps; he now keeps them covered up and has tried to get a few removed, saying they no longer represent the person he is today.
He says his personal crises inspired him to help those who have suffered.
"Some people find themselves through helping others," Ching says. "The more they rescue, the more they piece themselves back together."
Ching, who is Japanese and Korean, was adopted by Chinese and Japanese parents. He says he learned most of what he now knows about health and wellness from his grandparents. As a child, he worked at his grandmother's private holistic medicine practice in Hawaii, where he learned to mix herbs and provide holistic care.
When Ching was 17, he moved to Las Vegas to attend college at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; he then came to California, where he got his bachelor's and master's of business administration from California Coast University, an online college. Outside the classroom, Ching continued to refine what his grandmother had taught him, developing his own form of new-age Eastern medicine for pets and people.
While in college, Ching had a small pit bull mix named Mila, who got very sick and later died from inflammatory bowel disease. After multiple visits to the vet, he became disheartened by the way Mila was treated. In Hawaii, many pet owners turn to holistic treatments and believe animals should be fed from similar food sources as humans, he says.
He ultimately decided he wanted to apply his experiences in Hawaii to a business in California, so he began making organic dog chow — without processed ingredients and starches, which, he says, can create and exacerbate health problems. Ching started distributing samples of his product at local farmers markets in 2010 and went on to open the Petstaurant a year later.
His decision to pursue this particular career was a departure from his family's expectations. His father is a stockbroker, as are his sister and two brothers. Ching was expected to follow suit.
"In Asian tradition, the oldest son is supposed to do what the father does," Ching says.
Instead, Ching got "every single credit card" he could and built his business from the ground up, expanding the Petstaurant storefront to include his rescue group, the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation. There aren't many shelters dedicated exclusively to abused dogs, he says, because they require an enormous amount of care and often suffer from lingering ailments, which rack up thousands of dollars in medical bills.
Ching began getting tips from other rescuers and calls from local shelters when they received abused dogs. He has sniffed out animal cruelty cases on his own, too — sometimes before the city can. Between the tip line he established, which goes straight to his cellphone, and the messages he receives through social media, Ching has investigated numerous claims of animal abuse.
He stakes out locations like a cop on a drug bust; when he feels that he has confirmed cruelty, he knocks on the person's door to broker a deal. Ching typically offers to refrain from turning the alleged abuser over to police if, in exchange, he or she hands the dog over to him. It hasn't always gone smoothly. A few months ago, when Ching was attempting to rescue a shar-pei from an abusive owner in a suspected crack house, he was bitten on the back — by a human.
Ching and his Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation have been able to develop a strong cyber network of support, with more than 53,000 Instagram followers. It's not surprising that he's amassed tens of thousands of devotees; his social media posts are deeply personal, exhaustive and often written from the point of view of the dogs he saves.
He got a flood of Instagram followers last year, thanks to a 2½-pound Chihuahua named Staples. She had been dropped off at a vet's office in Coachella with her mouth stapled shut, Ching says. This, combined with not eating, caused her to vomit acid into her mouth, leading to an infection in her throat and sinuses.
Staples eventually died from her injuries, but not before a fellow rescuer brought her to the attention of Ching, who took Staples to his shelter and tried to nurse her back to health. After a visitor (Ching thinks it was a celebrity) published a social media post about Staples, the Petstaurant was flooded with people.
"This one little life paved the way for so many," Ching says.
In June 2015, Ching read about the Yulin Dog Meat Festival, where an estimated 10,000 dogs are tortured, killed and eaten each year.
"Part of me thought it wasn't true," Ching says. He knew dogs were eaten in China but believed the claims of torture were exaggerated.
He wanted to see for himself — and help in some way. Ching recalls that his wife initially was dubious of his decision (Ching doesn't speak Cantonese or Mandarin and didn't have any connections in China), but she soon told him to follow his heart.
Humane Society International estimates that about 30 million dogs are slaughtered for meat in Asian countries each year. Although it's not illegal to sell or eat dog meat in China, there are a variety of other laws and regulations that dog traders often violate, including selling poisoned dog meat (from dogs who died of poisoning) and transporting dogs that have a vaccination record. In addition to the horrifying ethical concerns surrounding the way dogs are housed and slaughtered, activists stress the health risks of preparing and eating dog meat, including an increased risk of contracting cholera or rabies.
Dog-meat eaters typically claim that it's part of their culinary history, has a variety of health benefits, enhances virility or is simply good luck.
Organizers of the 5-year-old Yulin festival argue that their summer-solstice event honors a long-standing Chinese tradition, but Peter J. Li, China policy specialist at Humane Society International, disagrees: "It was a new festival created by the dog-meat traders to promote dog-meat sale."
The "vast majority" of dogs in the meat trade are stolen pets or guard dogs, according to the Animals Asia Foundation. Li, who's also an associate professor of East Asian politics at the University of Houston-Downtown, says young, uneducated men steal dogs from rural villages — dog-napping until they've gathered enough of them to sell to meat traders.
In Beijing, the International Center for Veterinary Services, which offers medical and surgical treatment for pets, also receives animals that are strays, abandoned or have been rescued from meat trucks; it works with a number of dog rescuers like Ching. However, Ching is the only one who goes directly to the slaughterhouses, posing as a dog-meat buyer, CEO and founder Mary Peng writes in an email to the Weekly.
"Marc puts himself directly in harm's way to try to collect evidence of the brutal practices in these black markets," she writes.
Peng first met Ching in September, when he showed up at her clinic with seven dogs he had just saved. Since then, she's helped him nurse back to health 18 of the 23 dogs he's brought into her clinic for treatment.
Often, dogs rescued from the meat trade started out in pet markets, Peng explains, but when they get sick and treatment becomes too costly, the vendors abandon the animals or sell them to slaughterhouses to "cut their losses."
Each of Peng's interactions with Ching has been "brief but intense," she writes. They typically discuss treatment plans and adoption schedules for the dogs, as well as big-picture issues such as why the meat trade flourishes despite domestic and international outcry.
The method in which dogs are slaughtered varies from country to country, but one constant remains: "There's nothing fast or humane about any of the forms we've seen of killing," says Kelly O'Meara, director of companion animals and engagement for Humane Society International.
O'Meara oversees the organization's campaign against the dog-meat trade, which is currently focused on China, South Korea and Vietnam. In South Korea, Labradors, golden retrievers and other household breeds are raised and slaughtered on "dog farms." They're held in elevated cages, given just enough food to survive and forced to endure frigid temperatures in the Korean winter, O'Meara says. Eventually, they're killed via anal electrocution. "They endure misery from start to finish," she says.
Ching estimates that his trips to Asia alone have cost $300,000 — for travel, drivers, translators and all the preparation that goes into planning each trip. For each mission, Ching pays researchers on the ground to scout slaughterhouses and line up the buys, offering bonuses for finding large operations. After a rescue, medical bills for the dogs add up fast: One pup can cost the foundation thousands of dollars.
That figure doesn't include the international airfare Ching purchases for each dog he relocates to the United States, and the care they receive when back on American soil.
As news of Ching's rescue efforts has spread, he's begun to receive a slow influx of donations, but most of his foundation's work is bankrolled by his own businesses. In addition to the Petstaurant and a health and wellness center for human patients in Encino, Ching owns Herban Theory, an organic supplement company also based in Encino, and Valia, an herbal skin care and supplement line in Beverly Hills.
Helping these animals is a lot for a single individual to take on.
Ching is "overloaded" with responsibilities, says Valarie Ianniello, who has been the director of operations for Ching's Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation since February. Ianniello had been volunteering with animal-rescue groups for eight years when she saw a Facebook post about Ching and began following him online. A few months later, she realized that the Petstaurant was just a few blocks from her home and headed over there, hoping to volunteer. Upon meeting Ching, Ianniello says, she was immediately struck by his kindness and gratitude.
"I just knew I was home," she says of Ching's shelter. "I knew this was the place I was supposed to be."
Ianniello has been working more than 50 hours a week to reform Ching's slapdash operation, which she describes as lacking basic policies and procedures such as a volunteer sign-in sheet or a formal adoption process. She also is reconfiguring Ching's website and organizing an "army of volunteers," which includes about 10 dedicated regulars, as well as 50 to 100 others who come in when they can to walk or play with the dogs.
Lisa McTarsney, who's been part of Southern California Bulldog Rescue for 13 years and has a rotating brood of abused and special needs dogs at home, has been fostering dogs for Ching's foundation since earlier this year. "These dogs specifically, they want to live," she says. "They have this will about them. They're telling me with their eyes."
McTarsney fostered and eventually adopted Faith, a white teacup of a dog with big, pointy ears (whom she eventually renamed Foxy). Ching rescued the dog in Korea, where she had been hanged and beaten. At first, Faith couldn't look at a human, not even in a mirror, and she'd pee herself from trembling so badly, McTarsney says. The day McTarsney decided to adopt Faith was "one of the happiest days" of her life.
"I just felt connected to her in a way I've never felt with a dog," she says.
During his visit to the slaughterhouse in Phnom Penh, Ching was able to rescue 16 dogs. Unfortunately, only four are still alive. Most of the others died from the injuries they sustained that day.
Ching will return to Cambodia next month to bring those four dogs home to the United States. He'll also head to China, this time as a political activist protesting the Yulin festival. He's invited his Instagram followers to join him and before the festival is planning to purchase advertising to push for compassion.
Ching's researchers also have brokered a deal for him to take over an entire slaughterhouse on his next trip. He hopes to rescue at least 20 dogs and then blow up the entire operation with dynamite. In exchange, Ching will help the slaughterhouse owners open a vegetarian restaurant as their new source of income.
"I think this whole experience has taught me a lot about compassion," Ching says. "If dogs can love in the way they do and forgive, then it really shows me that there's hope for humanity."
Although Ching says he will continue to try to save as many dogs as possible, his end game is to bring sweeping reform to countries abroad, so dogs like the hundreds he's rescued no longer need rescuing.
While activists push for abolition of the dog-meat trade, Ching says that even the passing and enforcement of animal-cruelty laws would be a step in the right direction.
To do this, he's hoping to harness a little star power. Many of these countries are obsessed with celebrity culture, Ching says, so if he can win support from someone with a big name, he or she could appeal directly to the population and say: "I've seen the proof, I've seen the videos, I cannot stand for this, and you shouldn't as a country."
Ching got this idea in large part from a successful campaign that former NBA star Yao Ming led in China against shark fin soup, for which fins are obtained by cutting them off a shark and leaving the animal to die. Ming fronted a public awareness campaign for a wildlife advocacy group to spread the word, and after just two years, shark consumption was down 50 percent in the country.
"People didn't identify with his cause," Ching says. "They identified with him."
For now, though, Ching is settling back into home life.
Less than a week after he returned from his latest trip, he was still shaken. His hands trembled as he scrolled through the hundreds of graphic photos and videos he took. After he touched down in the United States, he sent his family to Legoland for a week, he says, because "it was clear I just couldn't be around them."
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Coming home is the hardest part, he explains. The reality of what he's witnessed begins to sink in, and he must try to readjust to the banalities of everyday life. He says he's spent a lot of time in his car recently; the small, confined space makes him feel more secure.
"Everybody's telling me I have to go to therapy, but there's no words to talk about [it]," Ching says. "There are just no words."