Best in Show

Nobody denies Debi Baker's talent with animals. Too bad she doesn't have the same gift with people.

Debi Baker calmly led a ten-month-old lion onto the set of a Becky the Carpet Queen commercial and told him to lie down. She turned a 1,300-pound red Angus bull loose in a studio filled with fragile technical equipment. She persuaded Caesar, an irascible white cockatoo, to roller-skate and spread his wings like the Anheuser-Busch eagle.

Baker created St. Louis's only animal talent agency, compiling a nationwide database that includes llamas, chimps and whistling squirrels.

A lot of people wish she'd stopped there.

Jennifer Silverberg
Debi Baker acknowledges she's angered many people: "When something fails, I'm the shit. And I'm sorry, I've failed a lot. But who hasn't?"
Jennifer Silverberg
Debi Baker acknowledges she's angered many people: "When something fails, I'm the shit. And I'm sorry, I've failed a lot. But who hasn't?"

Instead, she also offered her services as a pet sitter, photographer, trainer, behaviorist, pet-therapy coordinator and fundraising impresario, juggling ten balls at once and adding in eggs and bunny rabbits and a spoon on her nose. Every time something fell, it left a bit of mess. But she never stuck around to clean up.

Friends and business partners flocked to her, then left, disenchanted. The only constant was the animals. Always Baker surrounded herself with them, craving their energy, their attention-getting, their immediacy.

Animals live in the present.

They react instinctively. They don't expect profit; they don't question motives or fuss about methods. Handled cleverly, they'll cooperate forever.

People, on the other hand ...

People judge the future by the past.

The St. Louis animal community spans vets, breeders, rescuers, trainers, handlers, hobbyists, volunteers and activists, and the relationships diagram like an AKC bloodline: Everybody's connected to everybody else. Everybody knows each other's history. And everybody who's ever come across Debi Baker has formed a passionate opinion about her.

Half of these folks adore her. They say she's charismatic, an uninhibited visionary with an agile wit and a genuine dedication to animal welfare. Point up her shortcomings and they make excuses, the sort indulgent pet owners make when Fluffy gets all excited and wets the rug.

The other half of the animal community press their lips tight and turn away at the mention of her name. Then they turn back to warn, "Be careful."

She's an alchemist, they say, transmuting bills and loans into gifts she need never repay.

She comes up with zany and charming ideas that collapse into a pile of excuses.

She promises the moon and delivers a flashlight.

She lives in chaos -- at least, she used to -- and her animals pay the price.

Baker owes a lot of people money or apology, and she's in no hurry to give either. Over the years, she's been accused of crowding and neglecting her animals; ignoring obligations she doesn't feel like honoring; tangling her business and personal relationships into a knotted skein of charm and abject need, inspiring ideas and flat-out lies.

Now she's launching her most ambitious and altruistic effort yet: the Rainbow Ranch Project, a way to rehabilitate rescued horses, wildlife and pets and use them in therapy with emotionally disturbed children. It's modeled after Green Chimneys, a 160-acre farm, residential facility, special-education program and wildlife-conservation center in Brewster, New York. Done right, such a project would cost millions.

Baker's friends say that if anyone can pull this off, it's Debi. They say she's changed, steadied herself, and that she deserves a fresh start.

Baker's detractors squint at that rainbow and see nothing but mist.

Baker, born in 1955, grew up in twangy little Scott City, down near Cape Girardeau. Her mother, Gladys Baker, collected Precious Moments. Her father, Alvie Baker, was a back-slapper, owned a shopping center and a grocery store and got his wit from his mother, who once talked a thief out of taking the food stamps because they wouldn't do him any good. Alvie and Gladys say Debi didn't like working at the family store -- too confining -- but she delighted the customers by playing Santa every year. She loved spectacle, and she loved animals. While her brother won their parents' adulation by piling up racing trophies, she sought her adrenaline rush parading cocker spaniels around the show ring, sculpting poodles into topiary, coaching Totos for local theater.

After an ill-considered marriage to David Allen Moore in 1975 and a divorce shortly thereafter, Baker fell in love with a St. Louis woman and opened a grooming business, Animal House, with her in West County.

A St. Louisan who knew Baker in those early days says she was great fun -- they'd go to dog shows, go out to eat in big carefree groups. She had a way of making acquaintances feel like old pals, using an engaging mix of bravado and blunt, funny insecurity. In quieter moments, though, she turned defensive, hard to get close to, with a temper like oil on a hot frying pan.

"She didn't keep her animals in clean conditions," the woman adds, "and she didn't take care of them the way I would want my animals taken care of. She would say she was taking care of people's dogs and kennel them in the basement, and the cages would be full of feces."

More than a dozen of Baker's friends would make similar observations about her animals -- stench and filth, too little exercise, too much time crated -- through the mid-'90s. A woman whose dog lived with Baker for years says the dog didn't know how to play and, to this day, cowers and froths at the sight of a cage. Breeder Nyla Hughes says a Bernese mountain dog pup she sold to Baker wound up with someone else six months later, skinny, wormy and unsocialized. Ron Twillman, manager of veterinary services for St. Louis County animal control, says inspectors have gone to Baker's house several times over the years, but she has refused them admittance.

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