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.