Best in Show

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

In 1994, a golden opportunity materialized: Baker got to know Marilyn Pona, a canine expert who founded two assistance-dog programs, trained some of the first seizure dogs and was named one of President George Bush's "thousand points of light." A wizard with obedience-school dropouts, Pona needed a place to work one-on-one with them. Baker needed studio space for photography and talent work, and her new life partner, a young woman named Hollie, wanted to work with cats.

The three women decided to share office space as Animal Behavior Consultants, splitting the cost of rent and utilities. They moved into 10041 Manchester Road, in December 1994, and Pona started holding classes there in January.

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?"

By March, she was gone.

"Marilyn Pona is probably the finest assistance-dog trainer I've ever met," says Baker. "But when she bought a $600 lit sign with the money from Assistance Dogs for Living [the program Pona founded], that sent up a red flag for me. Then I came in one night and [a friend of hers] was smoking in the building, which we'd agreed to prohibit. She said, 'It's raining outside and he's disabled.' I said, 'There's an awning -- can't he roll himself out there?' And she got irate."

Pona doesn't remember buying a sign. She does remember being irate after Baker interrupted a meeting of twenty people to confront the young man.

But that's not why she left.

"We'd set down ground rules," Pona sighs, "and one of them was 'no retail.' All of a sudden, two display cases appeared; she said she got them at a going-out-of-business sale. And then there was stuff in the cases and a woman selling it.

"Debi was never there with her shingle out and the lights on," she continues. "People would come looking for her, saying her check had bounced or something, and my classes kept getting disrupted. Finally I had to print on three-by-five cards: 'I share this location with Debi Baker, I do not know her whereabouts, I'm terribly sorry.' I'd say, 'I can't stop my class, here,' and give them the card like a deaf person."

Pona was also disturbed by the "enormous number of cats in her little bitty house, maybe 40 upstairs at that time, and feral cats in the basement and dog crates all stacked in a tiny kitchen."

But what bothered her most was the handling:

"I saw her jiggle a kitten in front of a dog so he'd perk up for the photo. And in another situation, we were on a set with multiple animals for Eukanuba. A [Great] Dane wasn't cooperating, and she was slapping it around. I put my hand on the dog and said, 'Stop it, or I'll take my animals and get out of here.' People who knew her thought the animals with her had wonderful lives, and they didn't. I would say that in a court of law."

Furious, Baker says, "I would never hit an animal." She says the Dane was dog-aggressive and eyeing Pona's Doberman, and all she did was pop the choke chain.

A few months after Pona left Animal Behavior Consultants, the woman who'd brought in the retail boutique left, too.

Undaunted, Baker printed up more fliers bragging, "Our staff of trainers and behavioralists are the best in the Midwest," and calling Hollie -- who was maybe 22 at the time and had spent one weekend at a Cornell cat seminar -- a "feline specialist." She then advertised dog training and pet sitting by "Animal Services," listing no name but giving the address as Suite 320, 9999 Manchester Road -- in other words, Box 320 at Mailboxes Etc.

For a while, Hollie helped with Animal Services. But later that year, she, too, broke with Baker.

In Baker's mind, she'd been left holding the bag -- and it bulged with unpaid bills, bounced checks and lawsuits. Yet she says she never even considered declaring bankruptcy.

"My philosophy is 'paying it forward,'" she explains, alluding to the film in which, instead of repaying a favor, a boy does favors for three more people.

It's not a philosophy the courts recognize.

Over the years, Baker has been sued by nine companies and individuals in St. Louis County, ranging from friends and business associates to banks, vendors and a landlord. Anybody else would currently be paying off judgments totaling more than $50,000.

But Baker's got nine lives.

The first two times she was sued, back in 1991 and 1992, she used a lawyer. Then she stopped bothering. In the usual pattern, a summons would be mailed and returned marked "unable to forward," or a process server would make multiple attempts to deliver the summons by hand. A court date would be set. Baker would request continuances, then fail to appear. The court would issue a default judgment against her. And no one would collect a penny.

Successful plaintiffs found no assets to garnishee -- she was self-employed, and her Kirkwood house was in her father's name. She's lived there since 1986, yet the files are fat with failed summonses. Acquaintances made a parlor game of speculating how Baker climbed over the fence in her back yard or parked around the block to evade the servers.

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