Best in Show

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

The brochure's vision statement predicts that Paws for Applause will become a nationwide organization; that Recycling Rover will be "recognized as the benchmark for the role of animals in society" and "the seal of approval for any pet-related industry"; and that the Rainbow Ranch Rehabilitation Center will become "the model for animal-assisted therapy in the United States."

What happens if someone gets inspired and gives them money?

Baker says so far they've only received small adoption-fee donations through Recycling Rover and that "all the money is going back to the animals. We just tell people it's not a 501(c)3, it's not tax deductible, but the money is going back to the vet bills."

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?"

One of Baker's oldest friends in St. Louis is Sally Thompson, a therapist at D&G Health Centers and the I Think I Can Learning Center in Fairview Heights, Illinois. Baker has donated time, animal visits, clothing and stuffed animals to both agencies -- not to mention a rescued dog, iguana, chinchilla and parakeets.

Because Thompson does pet therapy with emotionally disturbed children herself, she knows how much skill, wisdom and vigilance it requires. She believes Baker and Horton can pull it off.

"Debi has the connections and the knowledge," she says. "But Missy is very good at staying the course, and there's a tremendous strength in that couple because of that. Debi is the flash, Missy is the cleanup lady. Debi has big ideas, and Missy follows through on them."

Has Thompson heard the stories of Baker's not paying people back, not showing up, alienating associates left and right?

"Oh yeah, absolutely," she says cheerfully. "Those are all true. I didn't loan Debi money; we didn't have any real business deals, so we have been able to remain friends. But she has a really bad temper. She cuts her nose off to spite her face, blames other people for everything, gets her feelings hurt really easily and lashes out when she shouldn't. She used to run away when she got in trouble: Instead of facing a bill and making arrangements to pay it off, she would ignore the person and cut them off, and then they hated her.

"I've watched the dynamics," says Thompson, "and the majority of them are healed. There's still some abrasiveness. She's still impulsive. But she does an awful lot of good."

Friends have been calling Baker lately, concerned about negative publicity just when she's pulled her life together. She reassures them:

"Shit hits the fan all the time -- and then it's gone."

She says she's made mistakes, she'll own up to that, but she's cleaned her life up, and she doesn't want the old problems to damage her dream or her future with Horton.

"My opinion about my past is that it's my past," she says. "I never drug it back up. I guess that I survived all that is interesting. But I don't know what it has to do with who I am personally.

"My life's work is going to be to put together this ranch," she continues. "Working with kids and animals is what I want to do, because kids and animals don't have a voice. I want a place where, when you walk through the gates, you can clear your mind -- a place that will be safe.

"All these years, animals have made my living for me," she finishes. "This is how I want to pay them back."

The nice thing about animals is that they don't expect payback.

The problem with people is, they do.

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