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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Each afternoon, as the golden Labs romp with the miniature poodles that nip playfully at the flanks of the Dobermans, the young professionals who overpaid for their starter dogs stand around under the ficus trees in Coconut Grove's Blanche Park and trade horror stories like they once might have swapped stock tips.
And the language they use: coccidia, giardia, diarrhea, kennel cough, parvovirus, bloody stools. Many of these novice pet owners get both a sick puppy and a veterinary education.
Alas, this education in common canine ailments doesn't come cheap. Marlene Kutza paid $1000 for an English bulldog -- described to her as purebred -- and got a pet that had not only intestinal parasites but signs of hip dysplasia that could require extensive surgery in a couple of years.
For $600 Cindy Karp went home last year with a two-tone toy poodle, Jake, who has since eaten up more than $100 in medicines and veterinary fees and caused incalculable anguish to Karp and her family. Thin and weak from infection, says Karp, Jake reacted badly to a rabies inoculation and nearly died.
Gabrielle Carella's Labrador retriever mix, a surprise 27th-birthday present from her boyfriend, did die -- right in the front seat of the couple's truck as they were bringing the animal back from an emergency visit to the veterinarian.
"We had just turned onto our street and my boyfriend said, 'He's dead.' He was laying on a sheet right between us," says Carella, an English teacher, of the three-month-old puppy she named Oso, or bear, for the big, rambunctious companion she expected him to become. "It was horrible. We had this dead dog between us. I put the sheet over him and we drove straight to the pet shop, which was closed, and then back to the vet's. I was so sad. I really felt like it was my responsibility. Heartbreaking."
Common to all of these woeful tales, besides the popular doggy playground on Shipping Avenue at Virginia Street, is the dogs' retailer: Puppy Kingdom USA, a small corner shop at 2700 27th Ave., which the owners claim moves more puppies than any other store in Miami. "We sell an average of 100 to 130 puppies a month, sometimes four or five a day," says Belkys Canoura, who with her husband Jesus bought the business two years ago.
Puppy Kingdom, like dozens of other pet shops in Miami-Dade County, gets its stock from what are called puppy mills: large breeders, usually located in the Midwest, which supply an estimated 500,000 dogs a year to U.S. pet shops. And doggone if these puppies don't sell. Whatever the color, breed, or gender, a cute, cuddly, tail-wagging little doggie behind bars cries out, "Take me home." Puppies are the quintessential impulse buy.
"People like us are a prime example," concedes Karp, who is married and has a teenage stepdaughter. "We've never had a dog before. So we go to a puppy store and we have no idea. We knew we paid a high price, but we figured that just meant it was a good, registered dog. But afterward you feel foolish and naive."
Indeed what a high price really means, suggest many animal-rights groups, is that the pet store owners -- such as the Canouras, for example -- are making a killing. Karp did a little research on her puppy and found that Jake was born in Coalgate, Oklahoma, and sold by the breeder to a wholesaler for $65. On average the Canouras say they pay $200 to $300 for the pups, spend another $100 or so for inoculations and shipping charges, and sell the dogs for $500 to $1000. "It's profitable," Belkys Canoura agrees.
The Humane Society of the U.S. advises against buying any animals from a pet store. Although the dogs are often advertised as "purebred" or "registered," the American Kennel Club warns that unsanitary conditions at the mills, inbreeding, and sham registries mean that the health and quality of the animals is uncertain.
According to Belkys Canoura, Puppy Kingdom's dogs -- which are housed in bare wire crates in an unadorned but air-conditioned showroom -- come from large breeders in Oklahoma and Missouri. And most are healthy, she says. "This one here is my puppy," Canoura declares, opening a cage to scratch the neck of a snoozing black-and-white Great Dane pup she has named Lord, who is soon to be running around the half-acre yard of the home she and her husband just bought.
But are customers ever dissatisfied with the dogs they purchase? "Sometimes," Canoura allows. "We try to explain the responsibility of having a dog. But everybody doesn't understand."
Now here's where the story gets really weird.
After an April in Paris, where he was captivated by the romance of pet lovers walking their poodles down the Champs Élysées, artist Nelson Diaz decided that he too would get a dog. On his visit to Puppy Kingdom, he fell, not for a poodle, but for a nine-week-old golden retriever. He was told the puppy was a male, which was what he wanted. After paying $550 he named his dog Francis Bacon (after the English philosopher-essayist).
When Francis soon became ill with diarrhea and dehydration, Diaz, who is 41 years old, took his pet to the closest All Pets Veterinary Group, a chain of animal clinics in Miami-Dade and Broward counties that Puppy Kingdom strongly recommends, usually without mentioning that Jesus Canoura is All Pets' general manager and has a twenty-percent interest in the firm. At the All Pets clinic at 1835 SW 27th Ave., Diaz says veterinary technician Rafael Cepeda put the nine-week-old puppy on the examining table and quickly discovered that Francis was actually a Frances -- a female. Checking his sales contract, Diaz noted that the letters FE had been inked in above the word "male" on the line calling for sex -- an addendum Diaz says he did not notice at the time of purchase and was clearly made to cover up a fraud. (Belkys Canoura responds that the employee who sold Diaz his dog may well have lied about the dog's gender. He has since been fired.)