Best in Show

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

"I travel a lot," she says, adding that her memory of those years is fuzzy, thanks to massive doses of prednisone for severe chronic hives. Most of the lawsuits, she says she doesn't even remember. Tom Phelps, for example, says he lent Baker $3,000 in 1991 because "she was going to do something at Disney World, down in Orlando -- she wanted to set up an office there and be an agent for animals in the movies."

Baker says Phelps' name doesn't even ring a bell.

"There are other Debbie Bakers, you know."

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?"

With her attorney and address?

She shrugs:

"People sue people for their underwear."

Some do. Others don't sue at all.

"I'm still ashamed of letting myself be taken in," writes a woman whom Baker befriended around 1990. She says Baker "borrowed a great deal of money from me and managed to buy [her partner] a car but could not manage to make payments on the sum she borrowed."

Then there was the nice dog owner who offered to come into partnership with Baker and straighten out the business side. He says he and his wife took out a second mortgage on their house so he could invest $9,000 with Baker and help her pay off the bills so they could start fresh.

"He never did it," says Baker. "At least, he didn't ever give the money to the business. Hell, I probably told him not to. The business wasn't doing well; the car had been repossessed...."

The friend's canceled checks indicate that he paid $9,000 to Debi Baker on February 23, 1996.

"Debi made no attempt to accomplish the things I had requested as part of the loan -- partnership papers, getting the back of the place cleaned up so we could have some sort of office," he explains. "I asked for the paperwork so that I could start filing the state tax returns, and she told me that it had expired. Then she stopped returning my calls or showing her face in the store when I was there. I guess I was pushing her pretty hard about what we needed to do to make a go of it.

"I know she recognized the money I gave her as a loan," he adds, "because I'd call and ask her to start repaying it and she'd say, 'Yeah, I will.' Finally she said, 'Don't call me anymore -- I'll call you.' And then she had her phone number changed."

Baker rolls her eyes at these claims: There's no money in animal work, she points out, and she drives a Suzuki, for God's sake.

"Where is all this fucking money everybody says I owe them, and what am I doing with it?"

In 1997, another bridge burned. Baker had organized a group of volunteers called Paws for Applause, and they'd been delighting nursing homes and sick kids with animal visits and performances.

Sue Bee Baxter-Carr joined at the start, and when Baker wanted to form a "drill team" of synchronized obedience, she thought it would be great fun.

"Debi explained that since I was leading the drill team, she would rather not have her name on the organization, something about how she had so much going on or an ex-girlfriend wanted to get money from her -- I don't remember exactly," says Baxter-Carr. "I said that was fine with me as long as they did the paperwork."

Paws for Applause was registered with the secretary of state in 1996 under Baxter-Carr's name. She says she kept turning small donations over to Baker, and crises kept befalling them.

"Once her car was repossessed with all the money in it," says Baxter-Carr. "Another time, somebody needed it, so she gave it to them. Meanwhile, I kept saying, 'Now, what kind of insurance do we have?' She said some big name, Prudential or State Farm or something, and threw a card at me: 'Here's our insurance agent.' My husband was worried, so I finally called, and they said, 'We don't know who you are.' I called all the other big companies. Debi was nowhere around at that point -- she wasn't returning my calls, and I was getting a bad feeling."

Baker says, "I think we were seeing if we could go under the same insurance I had for the business," and remembers a meeting when they decided they would just warn the various facilities that they were uninsured.

Other Paws members say that's ridiculous.

"Debi told us she had liability insurance that would cover us," recalls one. "The very first visit we did, there was this tiny lady a zillion years old with tennis balls on the back legs of her walker, and one of the retrievers' eyes lit up. He lives with a dog who won't let him touch tennis balls. You could just see him thinking, 'Man, she's old -- I could take her.' No way would we have gone in without insurance."

Everybody agrees on one thing: The volunteers broke with Baker and joined a national group, Love on a Leash, which had insurance coverage in place.

"I wasn't the best person for them, because I'd just lost the business," says Baker, "but I believed in them as much as they believed in me. And they can't say I've run or hid, because I'm still here."

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