Best in Show

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

A vet who treated Baker's animals in the early days says, "They had decubitus ulcers [bedsores], problems strictly from neglect and crating, and they needed baths. You always knew it was Debi Baker coming in because it was a real stinker." Another vet, Dr. Philip Wagenknecht, treated some of her animals in the mid-'90s and says, "they always looked a little rough and emaciated and sometimes flea-ridden, the hair coat dull."

Baker says these vets are probably remembering animals she'd just rescued, not pets she used for photo shoots. Her current vet, Dr. Chris Rolf of the Maple Tree Veterinary Clinic, says she's conscientious about all her animals' care, and now that she has a formal rescue program, Recycling Rover, she uses foster homes.

"Some people can't even stand the idea of crates," Baker notes. "At times I probably had too many dogs, because that's what handlers do. But on a normal day, our dogs are with us."

Marissa "Missy" Horton met Baker in 1996. Friends say Horton has helped get Baker's life on track.
Jennifer Silverberg
Marissa "Missy" Horton met Baker in 1996. Friends say Horton has helped get Baker's life on track.

No one has ever denied Baker's gift with animals. She knew her way around a show ring; she could talk a dog out of an abandoned building with a bit of hamburger; she could neutralize aggression and win cooperation from the wildest of creatures. One day she accompanied a friend to a photo shoot, and the photographer, noticing her skill, suggested she go into the animal-talent business.

With that twist of the kaleidoscope, everything slid into place: her love of theater and spectacle, her affinity with animals, her recoil from nine-to-five subservience. She quickly carved herself a niche, producing exotic critters for movies and camels for Nativity scenes. In 1989, she and a new partner, Patricia Shelton, registered with the Missouri Secretary of State as co-owners of the Animal Actors & Friends talent agency.

Again Baker was mixing romance with business. Again it ended badly.

"She was going to put money in the agency and do all the paperwork and show up every day," says Baker, her mouth twisting. "And you know what? People who get involved with this think I'm their savior, because I'm very charismatic, and then when something fails, I'm the shit. And I'm sorry -- I've failed a lot. But who hasn't?"

Shelton could not be reached for comment.

Baker swiftly changed her business name to Animal Images, and this time she didn't bother registering it.

Eager to do more animal photography herself, she shared a Washington Avenue studio with acclaimed photographer Suzy Gorman.

Their association didn't end well, either.

"She became my closest friend, cooked food for me, gave me a kitten," Gorman recalls. "Then she said she had this illness and needed money for a doctor. She got me for several thousand dollars and ended up not having anything wrong with her. She started bringing animals into the studio, and she treated them like furniture. Then she said she couldn't pay her rent because she'd gotten robbed in the hallway."

Baker says she did get robbed, but that had nothing to do with the rent check:

"I paid my rent, probably not as fast as her. Again, I was by myself -- it was just me and Suzy splitting that big space."

Did Gorman ever give her money?

"Probably, but I don't know why."

Next came Susan Yarbrough, a highly respected trainer who showed dogs and taught classes with Baker. Now Yarbrough says:

"I wouldn't go into business with her again. I've pretty much let our paths not cross. Her ability to deal with animals was very good, but fantasy got mixed up with fact."

In the early '90s, Baker left that first, stormy set of friendships behind, writing Gorman and the others off as untrustworthy folks who expected the impossible. To replace them, she forged an entirely new set of friendships, winning the hearts of a lot of suburban animal-lovers who'd never met anyone quite like her.

The warmth they felt toward the four-legged, they automatically extended to her. They embraced her projects because they all involved animals, and they trusted her because the animals did.

Besides, she was fun.

"She loved excitement, and she took you into a whole new world," recalls a former friend who, like many of the 60-plus people interviewed for this article, doesn't want to be named. Some fear Baker's temper; others work with animals and don't want the association or the confrontations with her supporters.

They say she has a way of complicating relationships.

"Some of my best friends are people she had me not speaking to," says Yarbrough. Others remember Baker urging them not to bother someone because she was grieving her dead husband -- and later learning that the woman had never even been married. They say Baker often whispered gossip so scandalous, they didn't dare check it out with the person in question. Liberal heterosexuals tiptoed around her faults, afraid of seeming biased against lesbians. Baker readily confided her past hurts and reluctance to trust anyone; therefore her new, kindhearted friends worked overtime to preserve her fragile trust.

They found her fascinating. Many still talk about her excellent training classes and her thoughtful little presents -- notecards imprinted with their favorite dog breeds; kitty statuettes. She took softhearted friends' rescued strays in hand and trained away their street habits. She donated time to animal groups and took pet portraits for fundraisers.

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