Best in Show

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

She praised these pets, exulting in their soulful brown eyes or glossy coat or sweet and spirited disposition. Fluffy could be a star! He could be on the cover of a grooming catalog or a Saks holiday catalog! He could be on a Purina Puppy Chow commercial!

Often she was right. Baker has uncanny intuition, and she can size up an animal's potential and temperament in a flash. She knows how to elicit the most photogenic expression, the best-in-show stance. She can get a row of diva cats to turn their heads in the same direction over and over and over again.

But she's the first to admit that she's lousy with paperwork.

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?"

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Dozens of St. Louis pet owners say she paid them reliably for their pets' publicity photos; others say they weren't paid at all or that they were paid a few times but their animals were used 25 or 30 times or they got $25 and learned later from an art director that the client had paid $75.

Most people didn't care; they were too excited to see Fluffy's face on the kibble bag. Baker says these are simple misunderstandings: Sometimes there was a lag time before she got paid, or confusion about the fee, and sometimes a precious poodle wasn't even chosen by the client.

Char Bebiak, head animal trainer and behaviorist for Purina for seventeen years, says: "I'd call a breeder and say, 'Hey, I need an exquisite example of' -- whatever the breed was -- and they would say, 'That other trainer that works with Purina never paid us.' I had to do a lot of mopping up."

Meanwhile, on the nonprofit side, Baker was organizing fundraisers. Mike Mullen, founder of Paws St. Louis, says, "She came on like gangbusters, an animal trainer with all these contacts with Purina and the media -- we thought we'd found the Lord."

He was disappointed.

So was Elmer Janca, president of the Open Door Animal Sanctuary for fifteen years. Around 1990, Janca says, Baker "came to us with a proposal to put on a benefit concert at the Kirkwood Theater.

"All we had to do was promote the concert and sell tickets. Well, we had a fair amount of people there, and when it was all over we waited and waited, and finally our vice president called and said, 'Where's our money? How much did we make?' Debi said that by the time she paid the musicians -- we thought they were going to perform for free -- and the sound technicians, there wasn't all that much left, but she would send it to us.

"She sent a $60 check, and it bounced."

Baker says she never worked directly with Janca but agrees that the fundraiser didn't make much money: "Not all fundraisers do. The best thing you can do with that kind of event is raise awareness."

And the $60?

"Maybe they sent the check in before the money was deposited."

When Nancy Grove was executive director of the Animal Protective Association, Baker produced a benefit concert for the organization at the Ethical Society. "It was a tremendous success," says Grove, "but things were not concluded. There were some tickets sold that the money never came back to us. She did a lot of work -- I was just unhappy that there was some money that was not accounted for."

Baker says the problem was that the APA didn't do its part.

"I didn't handle the ticket sales," she says, "and they didn't sell the tickets they should have. These groups become lax. You do one great fundraiser for them, and they stop doing anything to help."

Mary Dickinson remembers a concert Baker organized, the proceeds to be split between Martha's Animal Sanctuary and the Cat Network:

"She did a great job, and people gave money -- one woman gave a $100 check. Then Debi said that she had the money in a bag to take to the bank, and somebody took it out of her car. We all felt terrible for her."

Baker says that particular fundraiser "went into the hole. And this other woman was running the cash box. To be very honest, I don't remember the money ever being stolen."

Asked for examples of fundraisers that did end well, Baker mentions a recent Santa-portrait benefit for the American Service Dog Association and a Cats' Night Out" fundraiser that was as smooth as angora. Profits exceeded all expectations. Checks for the silent auction were written directly to the Cat Network, and there weren't any real expenses to manage.

A friend of Baker's who attended many of the fundraisers in question tilts her head and tries to explain:

"There's the kid who sets up a lemonade stand and sells lemonade. And then there's the kid who builds the stand and paints it and sets up lights, and it costs six times as much, and when you really look at it, the lights are run from an extension cord that plugs into the neighbor's house and on the way home the one-armed stranger with a bushy beard takes the money."

But it's still a helluva lemonade stand.

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