By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Paul Friswold
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
Baker created St. Louis's only animal talent agency, compiling a nationwide database that includes llamas, chimps and whistling squirrels.
A lot of people wish she'd stopped there.
Instead, she also offered her services as a pet sitter, photographer, trainer, behaviorist, pet-therapy coordinator and fundraising impresario, juggling ten balls at once and adding in eggs and bunny rabbits and a spoon on her nose. Every time something fell, it left a bit of mess. But she never stuck around to clean up.
Friends and business partners flocked to her, then left, disenchanted. The only constant was the animals. Always Baker surrounded herself with them, craving their energy, their attention-getting, their immediacy.
Animals live in the present.
They react instinctively. They don't expect profit; they don't question motives or fuss about methods. Handled cleverly, they'll cooperate forever.
People, on the other hand ...
People judge the future by the past.
The St. Louis animal community spans vets, breeders, rescuers, trainers, handlers, hobbyists, volunteers and activists, and the relationships diagram like an AKC bloodline: Everybody's connected to everybody else. Everybody knows each other's history. And everybody who's ever come across Debi Baker has formed a passionate opinion about her.
Half of these folks adore her. They say she's charismatic, an uninhibited visionary with an agile wit and a genuine dedication to animal welfare. Point up her shortcomings and they make excuses, the sort indulgent pet owners make when Fluffy gets all excited and wets the rug.
The other half of the animal community press their lips tight and turn away at the mention of her name. Then they turn back to warn, "Be careful."
She's an alchemist, they say, transmuting bills and loans into gifts she need never repay.
She comes up with zany and charming ideas that collapse into a pile of excuses.
She promises the moon and delivers a flashlight.
She lives in chaos -- at least, she used to -- and her animals pay the price.
Baker owes a lot of people money or apology, and she's in no hurry to give either. Over the years, she's been accused of crowding and neglecting her animals; ignoring obligations she doesn't feel like honoring; tangling her business and personal relationships into a knotted skein of charm and abject need, inspiring ideas and flat-out lies.
Now she's launching her most ambitious and altruistic effort yet: the Rainbow Ranch Project, a way to rehabilitate rescued horses, wildlife and pets and use them in therapy with emotionally disturbed children. It's modeled after Green Chimneys, a 160-acre farm, residential facility, special-education program and wildlife-conservation center in Brewster, New York. Done right, such a project would cost millions.
Baker's friends say that if anyone can pull this off, it's Debi. They say she's changed, steadied herself, and that she deserves a fresh start.
Baker's detractors squint at that rainbow and see nothing but mist.
Baker, born in 1955, grew up in twangy little Scott City, down near Cape Girardeau. Her mother, Gladys Baker, collected Precious Moments. Her father, Alvie Baker, was a back-slapper, owned a shopping center and a grocery store and got his wit from his mother, who once talked a thief out of taking the food stamps because they wouldn't do him any good. Alvie and Gladys say Debi didn't like working at the family store -- too confining -- but she delighted the customers by playing Santa every year. She loved spectacle, and she loved animals. While her brother won their parents' adulation by piling up racing trophies, she sought her adrenaline rush parading cocker spaniels around the show ring, sculpting poodles into topiary, coaching Totos for local theater.
After an ill-considered marriage to David Allen Moore in 1975 and a divorce shortly thereafter, Baker fell in love with a St. Louis woman and opened a grooming business, Animal House, with her in West County.
A St. Louisan who knew Baker in those early days says she was great fun -- they'd go to dog shows, go out to eat in big carefree groups. She had a way of making acquaintances feel like old pals, using an engaging mix of bravado and blunt, funny insecurity. In quieter moments, though, she turned defensive, hard to get close to, with a temper like oil on a hot frying pan.
"She didn't keep her animals in clean conditions," the woman adds, "and she didn't take care of them the way I would want my animals taken care of. She would say she was taking care of people's dogs and kennel them in the basement, and the cages would be full of feces."
More than a dozen of Baker's friends would make similar observations about her animals -- stench and filth, too little exercise, too much time crated -- through the mid-'90s. A woman whose dog lived with Baker for years says the dog didn't know how to play and, to this day, cowers and froths at the sight of a cage. Breeder Nyla Hughes says a Bernese mountain dog pup she sold to Baker wound up with someone else six months later, skinny, wormy and unsocialized. Ron Twillman, manager of veterinary services for St. Louis County animal control, says inspectors have gone to Baker's house several times over the years, but she has refused them admittance.
A vet who treated Baker's animals in the early days says, "They had decubitus ulcers [bedsores], problems strictly from neglect and crating, and they needed baths. You always knew it was Debi Baker coming in because it was a real stinker." Another vet, Dr. Philip Wagenknecht, treated some of her animals in the mid-'90s and says, "they always looked a little rough and emaciated and sometimes flea-ridden, the hair coat dull."
Baker says these vets are probably remembering animals she'd just rescued, not pets she used for photo shoots. Her current vet, Dr. Chris Rolf of the Maple Tree Veterinary Clinic, says she's conscientious about all her animals' care, and now that she has a formal rescue program, Recycling Rover, she uses foster homes.
"Some people can't even stand the idea of crates," Baker notes. "At times I probably had too many dogs, because that's what handlers do. But on a normal day, our dogs are with us."
No one has ever denied Baker's gift with animals. She knew her way around a show ring; she could talk a dog out of an abandoned building with a bit of hamburger; she could neutralize aggression and win cooperation from the wildest of creatures. One day she accompanied a friend to a photo shoot, and the photographer, noticing her skill, suggested she go into the animal-talent business.
With that twist of the kaleidoscope, everything slid into place: her love of theater and spectacle, her affinity with animals, her recoil from nine-to-five subservience. She quickly carved herself a niche, producing exotic critters for movies and camels for Nativity scenes. In 1989, she and a new partner, Patricia Shelton, registered with the Missouri Secretary of State as co-owners of the Animal Actors & Friends talent agency.
Again Baker was mixing romance with business. Again it ended badly.
"She was going to put money in the agency and do all the paperwork and show up every day," says Baker, her mouth twisting. "And you know what? People who get involved with this think I'm their savior, because I'm very charismatic, and then when something fails, I'm the shit. And I'm sorry -- I've failed a lot. But who hasn't?"
Shelton could not be reached for comment.
Baker swiftly changed her business name to Animal Images, and this time she didn't bother registering it.
Eager to do more animal photography herself, she shared a Washington Avenue studio with acclaimed photographer Suzy Gorman.
Their association didn't end well, either.
"She became my closest friend, cooked food for me, gave me a kitten," Gorman recalls. "Then she said she had this illness and needed money for a doctor. She got me for several thousand dollars and ended up not having anything wrong with her. She started bringing animals into the studio, and she treated them like furniture. Then she said she couldn't pay her rent because she'd gotten robbed in the hallway."
Baker says she did get robbed, but that had nothing to do with the rent check:
"I paid my rent, probably not as fast as her. Again, I was by myself -- it was just me and Suzy splitting that big space."
Did Gorman ever give her money?
"Probably, but I don't know why."
Next came Susan Yarbrough, a highly respected trainer who showed dogs and taught classes with Baker. Now Yarbrough says:
"I wouldn't go into business with her again. I've pretty much let our paths not cross. Her ability to deal with animals was very good, but fantasy got mixed up with fact."
In the early '90s, Baker left that first, stormy set of friendships behind, writing Gorman and the others off as untrustworthy folks who expected the impossible. To replace them, she forged an entirely new set of friendships, winning the hearts of a lot of suburban animal-lovers who'd never met anyone quite like her.
The warmth they felt toward the four-legged, they automatically extended to her. They embraced her projects because they all involved animals, and they trusted her because the animals did.
Besides, she was fun.
"She loved excitement, and she took you into a whole new world," recalls a former friend who, like many of the 60-plus people interviewed for this article, doesn't want to be named. Some fear Baker's temper; others work with animals and don't want the association or the confrontations with her supporters.
They say she has a way of complicating relationships.
"Some of my best friends are people she had me not speaking to," says Yarbrough. Others remember Baker urging them not to bother someone because she was grieving her dead husband -- and later learning that the woman had never even been married. They say Baker often whispered gossip so scandalous, they didn't dare check it out with the person in question. Liberal heterosexuals tiptoed around her faults, afraid of seeming biased against lesbians. Baker readily confided her past hurts and reluctance to trust anyone; therefore her new, kindhearted friends worked overtime to preserve her fragile trust.
They found her fascinating. Many still talk about her excellent training classes and her thoughtful little presents -- notecards imprinted with their favorite dog breeds; kitty statuettes. She took softhearted friends' rescued strays in hand and trained away their street habits. She donated time to animal groups and took pet portraits for fundraisers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
With her attorney and address?
"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."
During the period when Paws fell apart, Baker says, she was an emotional and physical wreck. Her business was sliding, Hollie had left her and she was falling ill with increasing frequency.
"She was almost incapacitated and still trying to do hundreds of things," recalls her friend Lynn Strozak, who helped her through that time. "I honestly thought maybe we were going to lose her. If you've been through any kind of depression, you know you have no control. But there were people that didn't understand that she was ill. I think she was having blackouts and personality changes. She told me I could talk about it."
Baker's history of health problems goes back at least to 1989, says a woman who worked as her photo assistant:
"She told me she had Epstein-Barr [a chronic viral infection that causes fever, fatigue and other symptoms]. I think she'd, like, bite the inside of her mouth until blood came out."
People remember Baker claiming to have breast cancer, seizures and a collapsed lung, and they say she often fainted and bled mysteriously from the mouth -- one woman says she saw blood drip from Baker's mouth at least ten times.
Baker says she gets severe chest pains and a hacking cough, then vomits a mix of blood and mucus -- the doctors aren't sure why.
"How could you fake it?" Baker asks now, adding that she tried to contact her physician for verification but that he never returned her call.
One former friend chortles at the notion of a medical explanation, convinced that Baker "breaks blood capsules. Pure theater."
Pona, her former business partner, also came to doubt the faints and seizures. One day she finally snapped, "Oh, get up, Debi."
"Do you forget what I do for a living?" Pona later asked a shocked Hollie. "I work with people who have seizures. This wasn't even a good one. Seizures are involuntary: People's eyes roll back, they jerk, and if they bite their tongue the blood is mixed with foamy saliva, not streaming out of their mouth like a vampire."
Alice Dodge, an activist who pours hundreds of dollars into animal rescue, says, "She'd always tell me she needed money or she could possibly die. I kind of felt sorry for her."
Gretchen Poellot sued for $5,500. Baker remembers that one but says the money was a gift. Poellot snorts:
"She'd say, 'Oh, by the way, Gretchen, I have this wonderful opportunity, and all I need is 4,000 of your dollars.' 'Oh yeah, and I have this fantastic opportunity at Disney World, and the airplane ticket costs....'" Poellot has given up on repayment; she sued on principle.
Others didn't dare.
Another friend says that when she confronted Baker about financial irresponsibility, Baker told her she was dying.
"What if it's really true?" worried the friend. But she couldn't help but notice that the symptoms came at strategic times.
For instance, after Mary McKee, owner of Mary's Pet Grooming in South St. Louis, hired Baker in the mid-'90s to do holiday pet portraits:
"We advertised for it, and we had a line about 100 people long at the door and appointments for all these dogs to be groomed that day before their picture -- and she didn't show up. I called, and there was no answer. We had to go rent a costume, and a photographer friend came over and did the portraits. When I finally did get ahold of her, she said she'd had a heart attack and she was in the hospital. I asked her what hospital. She wouldn't tell me."
Baker scoffs at the idea of 100 people lined up outside a tiny grooming shop in South City:
"She never signed a contract. She never got back to us. And I didn't say I had a heart attack. I might have said I was sick."
She was even sicker when she failed to show up with twelve springer spaniels for a major commercial photo shoot. Her current partner, Marissa Horton, confirms that Baker had chest pains and dizziness and that blood started coming from her mouth. Terrified, Horton raced her to the St. John's Mercy emergency department. She also says she left a message on the photographer's home answering machine.
All he remembers is that "the client had flown in, everything was set up in the studio and we were waiting, and the whole thing got wiped out because she didn't come."
Baker met Horton, her current partner, in the spring of 1996, shortly after her relationship with Hollie ended. A senior in high school, Horton loved animals and wanted to learn more about Baker's work. By fall, they were mailing wedding invitations.
Since then, Baker's life has made a 180-degree turn.
Calls are returned, appointments kept, obligations honored and bills paid promptly with checks drawn on an account in Horton's name and signed in her neat rounded handwriting. In 1997, Horton registered a new name for Baker's talent agency, Winged Womyn Productions, and took over as owner. Both women say that Baker merely provides advice (although local photographers still cite her as the primary handler). Baker says she spends most of her time at home working on three books: Keepers of the Earth, about zoos and exotic animals; Pissed Off, a coffee-table book compiling photographs of animals urinating; and Rescuing Rover, her philosophy of rehabilitation and practical obedience training.
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.
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.
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."
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.