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Michael J. Berens
Michael J. Berens

“Glamour Beasts,” an investigative series by Seattle Times staff reporter Michael J. Berens, was honored Tuesday evening by The National Press Club with its Ann Cottrell Free Animal Reporting Award.

The series reported that efforts by zoos to preserve and propagate elephants have largely failed, both in Seattle and nationally. The infant-mortality rate for elephants in zoos is almost triple the rate in the wild.

Berens did a first-of-its-kind analysis of 390 elephant fatalities at accredited U.S. zoos for the past 50 years. His analysis found that most of the elephants died from injury or disease linked to conditions of their captivity, from chronic foot problems caused by standing on hard surfaces to musculoskeletal disorders from inactivity caused by being penned or chained for days and weeks at a time.

Of the 321 elephant deaths for which The Seattle Times had complete records, half were dead by age 23, more than a quarter of a century less than their expected life spans of 50 to 60 years. Officials at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo and in the zoo industry defend captivity as a tool for scientific advances that have benefited both captive and wild elephants.

Berens, 54, joined The Times in 2004. He has since been honored with the Pulitzer Prize and numerous national awards for his investigative reporting. Other Times staffers who played key roles in the series were photographer Steve Ringman and video editor Danny Gawlowski.

Free was a groundbreaking journalist in the 1950s and 1960s whose reporting on lab animals and on wild horses led to the Humane Slaughter Act, the Animal Welfare Act and other reforms.

Other National Press Club award winners this year included PBS Frontline, the Chicago Tribune and The Wall Street Journal.