Veterinarian Loses Lawsuit Against PETA, Activist

In January veterinarian Howard Baker lost his civil lawsuit against People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and undercover operative Michelle Rokke stemming from animal cruelty charges that PETA originally aired against Baker.

Baker was convicted of 14 counts of animal cruelty in July 1999. That verdict was later thrown out, however, after an appeals court judge found that Rokke was not a credible witness and that the judge who convicted Baker inappropriately took her testimony at face value.

After his conviction was thrown out, Baker turned around and filed a lawsuit against Rokke and PETA seeking $900,000 in compensatory damages for lost business at his veterinary practice, and $370,000 in legal fees and punitive damages.

But after a six-day trial in federal court in New Jersey, a jury spent less than two hours to reject the lawsuit.

PETA lawyer Jeff Kerr told the Home News Tribune,

It was an utterly baseless charge. The jury was out for all of an hour and a half. This is a victory for the animals.

Baker’s wife Jackie, meanwhile, complained that the judge in the case refused to allow much of the couple’s evidence against PETA and Rokke.

PETA, in turn, has a lawsuit seeking damages against Baker pending in Virginian. That lawsuit claims that Baker attempted to injure the animal rights group.


No win in civil lawsuit for vet. Sharon Waters, Home News Tribune, January 31, 2004.

Jury Rules For Peta Investigator In Case Of New Jersey VeterinarianÂ’S Behind-The-Scenes Beatings. Press Release, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, January 30, 2004.

Dateline Covers the Howard Baker Controversy

Last night NBC’s Dateline program featured an in-depth look at the Howard Baker controversy which is a microcosm of the way much of the animal rights movement operates.

Baker is a veterinarian in New Jersey who was accused and convicted of cruelty to animals. Nine months after his conviction, however, an appeals judge acquitted him of all charges. The central question at his original trial and during his appeal was this: can the court trust the word of a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals‘ activist?

The activist in question was Michelle Rokke who has made a part-time career out of infiltrating business on behalf of PETA. Rokke was the activist who stole thousands of documents from Huntingdon Life Sciences, forcing PETA into a settlement agreement which forbids them from campaigning against HLS (which is why you haven’t heard anything from PETA about the company).

Rokke claimed she went to work for Baker to obtain experience in working with animals, but witnessed abuse her very first week on the job. Nonetheless she worked for Baker for several years, and in the process secretly recorded hundreds of hours of videotape of Baker treating animals. A 20-minute portion of one of those videotapes was the basis for the animal cruelty charge.

The video shows Baker treating a dalmatian. In the video, Baker is clearly very angry with the animal and says things like, “I hate rotten dogs! Stop biting me or I’ll choke you to death!” He also strikes the animal at least once. Baker testified the dog tried to bite him and he took necessary and proper actions to protect himself and his staff. Rokke testified that Baker savagely hit the dog over the head — off camera — and that she saw him repeatedly abuse other animals in his care. Other people who worked with Baker in his office testified that although Baker used appropriate force to restrain animals that presented a potential threat, they never saw him engage in any sort of abuse.

The bottom line in the trial was whether or not Rokke made a credible witness in her testimony that, off camera, Baker violently attacked the dalmatian and her accusations that this was part of a pattern of behavior she had witnessed for years.

The trial judge, Emory Toth, convicted Baker on 14 counts of animal cruelty saying that he found Rokke an extremely credible witness and didn’t think that the fact that she was a PETA activist who admitted on the stand that she had lied repeatedly in the past in any way diminished the credibility of her testimony. The appeals court judge, Joyce Munkacsi, made a surprising ruling when she ruled that Rokke lacked credibility. This is surprising since generally a trial court’s decision about such evidentiary matters is considered the last word unless the appeals court finds that the trial court made a serious error. In her comments announcing her decision to acquit Baker of all charges, Munkacsi said,

The court below chose to accept wholeheartedly all of the accounts of these events as perceived by Rokke. This court respectfully disagrees with the assessment of credibility by the court below, and I cannot find Michelle Rokke to be a credible witness such as to be the reed on which the state has built this case.

After seeing some of Rokke’s testimony, it’s difficult to fathom why Toth found Rokke so credible. Consider this exchange between Rokke and Baker’s attorney,

Attorney: Nowhere in this [employment] application did you tell or did you put down on this sheet that you were a PETA employee at the very time you were seeking employment from Dr. Baker. Is that correct? Yes or no?

Rokke: Yes

Attorney: So you lied on this application?

Rokke: I did not list that PETA was my employer.

Attorney: You lied on this application.

Rokke: I–I didn’t list PETA on the employment, correct.

[Later Rokke is shown a picture from a PETA magazine accompanying an article about Rokke’s investigation of pregnant mares used to producer premarin. The photo is cropped closely so that the reader is not aware that he’s looking at a picture of a male horse rather than a mare.]

Attorney: Do you think that was all misleading, the use of that photograph, carefully cropped so you couldn’t see whether it was a pregnant mare or a male stallion?

Rokke: I don’t think it was, because if you have a lot of pregnant mares, you obviously have male horses, so their care and treatment came into play as well.

Later, bringing up her undercover work at HLS, the attorney for Baker asks Rokke whether or not she broke the law in stealing documents from them,

Attorney: Do you think you’re a criminal because you broke the laws at Huntingdon?

Rokke: Well, I’m not certain that I’ve broken the law, to be perfectly honest with you. You know, I’ve not been held up on trial in a court of law as a criminal, so no, I don’t think I’m a criminal.

Attorney: Stealing company records? Stealing client lists? Stealing trade secrets? Disseminating that information?

Rokke: Well, I–I certainly don’t think of myself as a criminal, no.

Attorney: Because the end justifies the means?

Rokke: I just think the public has a right to know what’s going on behind those locked doors.

It is bizarre that Toth considered her credible after those exchanges, since whatever else Rokke is, she clearly is adept at interpreting events in the most self-serving manner possible. As the judge who would have heard the HLS case had it not been settled put it, in her testimony in depositions for that case Rokke had “misrepresented” and “rationalized” her actions to fulfill her mission.

Thankfully Munkacsi saw through the facade. Baker is currently suing Rokke and PETA for defamation and malicious prosecution.

PETA's Hypocritical Lawsuit Against Ringling Brothers

The Associated Press reported this week that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has filed suit in Virginia against Ringling Brothers Circus. The lawsuit charges Ringling Brothers with using paid investigators to infiltrate PETA by pretending to be volunteers. The spying allegedly took place in the early 1980s.

Of course PETA pioneered this technique of infiltrating groups itself — in fact it came to national prominence precisely because of Alex Pacheco‘s questionable undercover work. Now, however, PETA is complaining that this case is different.

The Associated Press quoted PETA’s Lisa Lange as explaining, “First of all, we don’t steal documents in our investigations. More importantly, we investigate situations where we have reason to belive, either through whistle blowers or industry practices, that illegal and abusive treatment of animals exist.”

Lange’s first statement is an outright lie. In 1997 PETA settled a lawsuit brought against it by Huntingdon Life Sciences over a PETA operative who infiltrated HLS. That operative stole hundreds of HLS documents and video tapes, and one of the requirements of the settlement agreement was that PETA had to return or destroy all materials stolen from HLS.

As for PETA investigating only where there are allegations of animal abuse: a) PETA has manufactured evidence of animal abuse as often as it has uncovered it, and b) given Ingrid Newkirk and other PETA staff members tendency to praise animal rights terrorism, it would not be much of a stretch to wonder if PETA might be engaged in illegal activities itself. Certainly there is at least as much evidence for that as there is for some of the bogus claims that PETA has pursued.

Ringling Brothers, for its part, told the Associated Press that the company had not been served with the lawsuit yet and so could not comment.


PETA: Circus spied on us. Matthew Barakat, Associated PRess, May 8, 2001.

PETA and Undercover Operative Sued by Veterinarian

The last year has seen a dramatic turnaround in the case of New Jersey veterinarian Howard Baker who was originally convicted of animal cruelty charges only to have his conviction vacated by an appeals court. Now, Baker is turning the tables on his accusers by suing People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and one of its undercover investigators for defamation.

The imbroglio started when Michelle Rokke was hired by Baker to work at his veterinary clinic. Rokke is a career animal rights activist who has worked with PETA on a number of hidden camera exposes. Rokke was involved, for example, in a recent undercover investigation of Huntingdon Life Sciences.

In that case Huntingdon sued PETA and Rokke after Rokke, among other things, stole over 8,000 documents from HLS. Eventually the two parties settled that lawsuit out of court with PETA agreeing to stop claiming that Rokke turned up evidence of animal abuse at the laboratory.

Rokke claims she went to work at Baker’s office simply to learn how to care for animals, but it didn’t take her long to start smuggling a hidden camera in to work in a purse over a 10-month period looking to collect evidence of animal abuse. The videotapes she made while working for Baker eventually formed the core of a case of criminal animal abuse that resulted in Baker’s conviction.

That conviction was thrown out by a New Jersey appellate court, however, and Baker charged that not only did Rokke lie about what happened in his office, but that she and PETA selectively edited the videotapes to hide the context of his actions (whether or not this is true in Baker’s case, PETA has a long history of selectively editing such videotapes.)

Now Baker has filed a suit against Rokke and PETA saying that PETA defamed him. This isn’t the first time that PETA has faced such a lawsuit. Animal trainer Bobby Berosini won a judgment against PETA after it distributed videotapes of him disciplining orangutans that were part of a live Las Vegas act. That judgment, however, was later reversed by the Nevada Supreme Court.

Baker’s case is different in one important point from the Berosini case — the Nevada Supreme Court essentially held that Berosini was in a public place and had no expectation of privacy. Rokke, however, taped Baker inside a private office and New Jersey’s state constitution explicitly recognize a right to privacy.

Neville Johnson, an attorney who advised Food Lion in its landmark win against ABC’s “Prime Time Live” for using hidden camera investigators, told the Bergen Record that the cases are very similar. “. . . You cannot commit a crime to expose wrongdoing, because then you would have these people assuming police or quasi-police powers.” Johnson went on to add that the case could do a lot of damage to PETA. “This kind of stuff, done with the approval of PETA management, could bankrupt PETA. This could be the end of them.”

Especially since courts and juries are likely to be less sympathetic to a political activist group than they would be to a legitimate news agency such as ABC News. Not to mention being more grist for the mill for any potential Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization suit against mainstream animal rights groups.


Secret agent for animals draws veterinarian’s suit. Mitchel Maddux, The Bergen Record, November 24, 2000.