By: Staff  Date: 01/16/2012 Category: | Animal Rights Extremism |

Howard Baker DVM was exonerated of all charges of cruelty by New Jersey Superior Court, and the New Jersey Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners reinstated his license to practice 12 days after the court's April 14 decision.

The appeals court ruled that


  • the testimony of the state's star witness was not believable;
  • the testimony of the defendant's witnesses was believable;
  • Baker's actions did not amount to cruelty under the law; and
  • the connection between the witness and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals tainted her testimony.


The case was based on the uncorroborated testimony of animal rights activist Michelle Rokke, an undercover operative for PeTA. Rokke worked in Baker's veterinary clinic for 10 months. She surreptitiously videotaped the doctor and shot as much as 200 hours of tape with a camera hidden in her handbag. That tape was subsequently edited to about three minutes by PeTA and sent to national media.

During the trial, Rokke said that much of the tape was either erased or reused and that PeTA edited out portions of the tape that were not relevant to the charges. The court subsequently obtained 20 minutes of tape involving a Dalmatian seen on the three-minute version. The appeals court judge watched the longer version and saw no evidence of abuse.

Rokke accused Baker of 16 counts of cruelty, beginning with a dog that was treated at the clinic two days after she started her job in June 1996 and ending with a dog seen by Baker in April 1997. Charges were filed in June 1997 - two months after Rokke's employment ended - and Baker was convicted in lower court in July 1999.

The three-minute edited videotape was played before and during the trial on local and national news programs, tabloid shows, and syndicated talk shows. Throughout the nearly three-year ordeal, Baker and his wife were harassed and received death threats.

The appeal

In overturning the lower court conviction on the uncorroborated charges filed by Rokke1, Judge Joyce E. Munkacsi wrote that the woman's testimony was unreliable based on established methods of determining credibility. Conceding that the trial judge who hears testimony has a better chance to assess credibility than the appeals court judge basing decisions on trial transcripts, Munkacsi wrote: "However, there are other factors that must also be considered such as the witnesses interest in the outcome of the trial, the witnesses power of discernment meaning his or her judgment or understanding, the possible bias in favor of the side for whom the witness testified, the extent to which, if at all, the witness is corroborated or contradicted, supported or discredited by other evidence, inconsistencies and discrepancies in the testimony of a witness and certainly the reasonableness or unreasonableness of the testimony given. "Applying these factors, I cannot find that Michelle Rokae (sic) is a credible witness such as to be the reed on which the State has built this case. ... Her bias was amply set forth in the record. She candidly admitted that she saw animal abuse where others may not. She has made a career of her devotion not to animal welfare but to animal rights. She has no training in veterinarian medicine nor any experience and she indicated that she took the position with Dr. Baker to learn. Yet within two days of becoming employed by Dr. Baker, she finds abuse ..."


Rokke told the court she took the job with Baker while waiting to start a position at Huntington Life Sciences, a research laboratory in East Millstone, New Jersey. Like her job at Baker's clinic, Rokke's job at Huntington2 ended with video-tapes purporting to show cruelty. She was also involved in infiltration of a research laboratory at Boys Town Hospital and in a PeTA campaign against farms where horses are kept for urine collection for the pharmaceutical industry. In these cases, even though allegations of cruelty did not result in charges, the victims have been subject to harassment and threats and PeTA has used them to raise millions of dollars in donations.

Rokke's allegations of cruelty were challenged by Dr. James F. Wilson, a veterinarian and attorney who is widely respected for his expertise in veterinary ethics and law. Wilson told the court that the action taken by Baker in each case was not inhumane.

"If you strike it so hard as to harm it, we're talking punishment, Wilson said. "But we're not talking about punishment, here we're talking about negative reinforcement. We're trying to diminish the behavior that we don't want to allow, for the behavior that you do want to come forward. And dominance in the animal world is unbelievably important. As the veterinarian you have to show that you're going to be the dominant player, and once you do that the animals give up, okay, go ahead. But as soon as they detect this battle for dominance between you, the veterinarian, and me, the animal, they're going to test the waters. And when they test the waters it's usually by crying, it could be by expressing their anal sacks, it could be by trying to bite, it could be by trying to scratch, it could be by wiggling. And at that point - I'll say right now, if a veterinarian is never allowed to strike an animal then we'll all be out of veterinary practice, there will be no veterinary practice."

Wilson said he used the following criteria in assessing each of the allegations:

  1. what is the action of the animal i.e. how is it resisting;
  2. what is the intensity of extent of the restraint being pursued by the vet i.e. is it excessive;
  3. is there harm to the animal i.e. broken bone, bleeding, tissue swelling; and
  4. what is the mental state of the vet i.e. is he out of control, is he exhibiting a reckless disregard for the animal's welfare?


In contrast, Dr. Gordon Stull, a rebuttal witness for the prosecution, told the court that there is no excuse for a veterinarian to exert dominance over or physically discipline even aggressive animals in the clinic even though the same methods used by the owner would not be abusive.

However, after five days of expert testimony from Wilson, the lower court judge wrote that he "just does not buy the doctor's testimony particularly in the area that a vet must assert dominance."

Baker's witnesses in the original trial also included two veterinary technicians in his practice and a dog owner who was present during the alleged abuse of his Labrador Retriever and who said that Baker did not mistreat his pet.

  1. Michelle Rokke is the PeTA operative involved in several other unauthorized investigations against animal owners and interests. The court documents apparently have her name misspelled.
  2. Rokke started the Huntington job in September 1996 and also continued working at Baker's clinic until April 1997.


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All Authors Of This Article: | Norma Bennett Woolf |
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