Practitioners fall victim to activist agendas

Jennifer Fiala

East Brunswick, N.J.-Dr. Howard Baker is armed for one last showdown with the animal rights group he blames for marring his practice, career and reputation.

East Brunswick, N.J.-Dr. Howard Baker is armed for one last showdown with the animal rights group he blames for marring his practice, career and reputation.

At presstime, the demoralized New Jersey practitioner was scheduled Sept. 29 to face off with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in federal court, charging the group with malicious prosecution relating to a 1999 animal abuse case in which Baker was convicted but then exonerated on appeal.

"My practice has been destroyed; I've been publicly humiliated," he says. "I want to move past this thing, but someone has to stand up to these animal rights people and stop them. They have ruined my life. I have no choice but to not give up."

Baker's case erupted in 1997, when an undercover PETA agent employed as a technician presented authorities with surreptitiously videotaped evidence of the veterinarian slapping a Dalmatian. Activist Michelle Rokke publicly accused Baker of widespread abuse, most notably of grabbing a cat around the neck and flailing it to death. Her story was played out on the national talkshow circuit. Baker's case, tried in municipal court, hit NBC news, Dateline as well as CBS's Inside Edition. To this day, the veterinarian maintains the videotaped incident was edited out of context and Rokke's accusations were plain lies.

In the spotlight

Dr. Howard Baker, convicted in 1999 of 14 counts of animal cruelty in a New Jersey municipal court, made national news with his case. He was stripped of his license but later exonerated by an appeals court and reinstated. The practitioner says he's still haunted by his ordeal.

The trial played out for two years. Recalling the incident, Baker says: "PETA is a publicity machine; it was horrific. Animal rights people picketed me, I got threatening phone calls saying they were going after my wife and children. It was hell for us.

"As for the tape, the dog bit me, I corrected it and it was found to not reach the level of animal abuse by a superior court judge. Even so, it seems the fact that I was exonerated seems to mean nothing."

Baker's lawsuit seeks undisclosed damages for the emotional pain and suffering he and his family endured as well as the decrepit state of his once-prosperous practice. Since the case closed, business remains down 75 percent. There are days Baker sees three patients. It's depressing, he says.

Haunted by the past

"I was in the grocery store a couple months ago and overhead people saying, 'That's the veterinarian who was charged with cruelty,'" he says. "People will call and make appointments and then call back and cancel once they've heard about me. I thought after a year or so I'd get back on track, but it's been three years and the practice hasn't taken off. It's just devastating. PETA's accusations follow me wherever I go."

Consultant Peter Weinstein, DVM, claims to know the embarrassment and frustration Baker feels. He was practicing for 15 years when an animal rights attorney took on a client's case concerning the wrongful death of her cat. A technician had mistakenly overdosed the animal with insulin while under the practice's care. For Weinstein, the lawsuit quickly became personal.

Driven from practice

"The whole experience of being deposed, having our practice scrutinized, it's really demeaning," he says. "For anyone faced with a lawsuit, it really grinds at you. You start asking yourself, 'What did I do to deserve this?' You go home at night and contemplate what could be done better; you start to criticize the systems in your practice and question whether you can trust the people around you. You start to question yourself."

Dr. Peter Weinstein

That's when Weinstein made the decision to leave practice.

"I was already starting to take on more of an oversight role, but this case expedited my decision to get out of practice and move on to consulting. The staff member who was involved was heartbroken and also left the profession shortly thereafter."

Broward County, Florida practitioner Dr. John Willie likely feels frustrated, too.

In the news

Last summer, media caught wind of a case against him calling for non-economic damages related to the untimely death of a client's dog.

Willie, represented by attorneys with the American Veterinary Medical Association's Professional Liability and Insurance Trust, did not return phone calls seeking comment. But Donald Schaefer, Florida Veterinary Medical Association's executive director, says if a trial court recognizes and awards damages for negligence, breach of contract and emotional pain and suffering, the heightened economic value of pets will be further cemented in the state. The standard also could have far-reaching effects nationally.

"This is a big case, and its unfortunate John Willie's been targeted to set precedence," he says. "Here's a young associate veterinarian doing the best he can when something goes wrong with a client. Two years later, he's bought a practice, doing well and all the sudden there's a court case naming him and it's hit national news. It must be horrendous. You do not become a veterinarian to get caught in the crosshairs of the regulatory process."