Best in Show

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

Baker also volunteers at Animals of the World in Southern Illinois, helping owner Sherry Roche rescue and place exotic animals. They've rescued a blind wolf with a broken jaw who was confined in a small corncrib in five inches of feces; they've worked undercover with government agencies to catch people who trade in exotics for their pelts and meat. Roche thanks God every time she sees Baker's car pull up, loaded with food, coupons and help.

"It's not easy work -- she could get bitten or catch a virus from the monkeys," says Roche. "Humane Society types just sit around, but Debi's a doer. I can trust her to help rescue the animals or to drive valuable young lions safely to a zoo."

Others give equally impressive testimonials: Carol Perkins, the widow of wildlife expert Marlin Perkins, says she's known Baker for years and deeply admires her dedication to animals.

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?"

Breeder Margie Williams says she's never had a problem with Baker: "I've known Debi probably twenty years. She's owned several of my dogs; she's used them in ads. She has a key to my house. I trust her implicitly."

Sara Huggins, a volunteer with the American Service Dog Association, says Baker has helped her find wonderful homes for dogs that didn't qualify for service. She still remembers how Baker rounded up volunteers and an old pink Cadillac convertible for a Dog Days of Summer fundraiser for the ASDA, then sweated in the July sun taking Polaroids of people's dogs and ate her own expenses.

Bebe Petty, who has known Baker for several years, sums up the accolades: "Maybe she's not the greatest businessperson, but she's got the biggest heart in the world."

How, then, did she manage to enrage so many people?

"Animal people are nuts, you know," Baker says drily. "These people have no lives." Then she turns serious:

"I'm very charismatic, I'm high-profile and I'm a workaholic. I was trying to do too many things by myself. A lot of the people who are saying things about me had relationships with me they aren't going to talk about. Some are closeted, and -- I'm no saint -- some of them are married. When I met Marissa, she used to call them 'the groupies.' There would be people at our house, at our business, watching what I was doing 24 hours a day.

"I told her, 'I feel like Jim Jones. These people will not go away!'"

In the past few years, Baker says, she's made new friends who are more honest and stable and better share her vision of helping animals and her long-dreamed-of Rainbow Ranch Project. She and Horton have spent the past six years developing the first two branches: an animal visitation program they still call Paws for Applause (the original was administratively dissolved; this one is unregistered) and a pet-rescue, rehab and placement service called Recycling Rover. They use six foster homes, and these volunteers vouch for their responsible care and deft placement. Baker says she's gotten only three returns in 300 placements.

Now, she and Horton are ready to begin the third and final branch: The Rainbow Ranch Rehabilitation Center, a place where therapists can use rescued animals to help emotionally troubled children.

Their model, Green Chimneys, is a multiservice agency with an annual operating budget of $24 million. The farm budget alone is $600,000, and the facility's programs are accredited with state agencies in New York and Connecticut and registered as three distinct 501(c)3 not-for-profit corporations.

As yet, none of the Rainbow Ranch programs is even registered with the secretary of state.

Baker says they are "currently working on nonprofit [status], although it's not my most important thing, because I'm not profiting off of it." Horton says they've actually filed paperwork with the Internal Revenue Service; later she says it's not quite filed yet, that it's still in the hands of several lawyers. Baker says they're hoping to find a lawyer who will donate time.

Meanwhile, they're talking up the project, and the people who can't yet bring themselves to trust Baker cringe every time they hear the name.

Two years ago, Winged Womyn advertised holiday pet portraits with profits from the reprint orders donated to the three animal charities, one of them the Rainbow Ranch Project. In June, Baker and Horton advertised a yard sale, "all proceeds to benefit the Rainbow Ranch Project" -- but didn't hold it. In May, Horton introduced the project on an Internet discussion list for animal-rescue groups in Missouri, saying, "We are currently working with Eukanuba Pet Foods to secure land in Franklin County."

Fundraising and marketing staff in Eukanuba's national offices hadn't heard of the project. Baker and Horton explain that the negotiations for corporate sponsorship are early and delicate.

They've printed up a brochure that says:

"In the Greater St. Louis area, the Rainbow Ranch is the only animal assisted therapy facility providing hands-on programs geared toward helping humans and animals heal each other."

Granted, it doesn't yet exist.

"The brochure is just spec -- it's not really being handed out," Horton says.

But Nora Donovan, owner of the animal-loving Stella Nora gift shop in Kirkwood, says she got one in the mail. So did dog behaviorist Gary Abelov. And somebody else saw a flier with similar text on a St. Louis Bread Company bulletin board.

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