Puppies R Love will never be mistaken for a high-class pet shop. An old Buick Regal emblazoned with the slogan T-Cup Puppies $399 is stationed in the parking lot. Inside of the large, dingy building at 2160 NW 79th St., pups stacked in small cages along every wall clamor for attention and drink out of hamster-style water bottles.
It was here that 31-year-old Homestead resident Sunny Gatewood paid $639 for a three-month-old Labrador retriever pup, which she named Cassie, this past April. "As soon as I left the store," Gatewood says, "she started wheezing."
Once Gatewood got the lethargic dog home, she noticed green snot. She took Cassie to a veterinarian, who diagnosed the puppy with a potentially fatal combination of pneumonia, roundworms, clostridium, and hot spots. After $748.29 in bills, according to receipts filed in court, the dog survived. "It is my opinion that this puppy was not fit for sale," wrote the vet, James H. Block.
After the pet store refused to reimburse her, Gatewood says, she filed suit. Soon, she discovered that, compared to others, she was lucky.
In May 2009, five customers claimed to have purchased gravely ill puppies suffering from pneumonia, nasal problems, and other ailments. They filed a joint lawsuit. One of the litigants, Max Lopez, claimed that an English bulldog and a poodle both died "within days" of having been purchased for a combined $1,922. Tahara Ellis's tiny chihuahua kicked the bucket too. Narahsa Caldwell claimed that, after a $1,280 vet consultation, she was told to "return [her] poodle to the store as she was sold a dying dog." A few days later, she learned the canine had expired. The owners of the two pups that survived were out a combined $6,800 in vet bills. The joint suit has not yet gone to trial.
Online reviews provide more horror stories -- "This is the worst place ever, they sold me a boy Maltese and it's about to die," reads one comment on insiderpages.com. And Puppies R Love's sister store in Pembroke Pines, since-closed Best Price Pups, was sued last year for violating Florida's pet lemon laws. There has been no verdict in that case.
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It's all a conspiracy against her industry, Puppies R Love co-owner Connie Lopez tells Riptide. "They're just people who believe that pet stores should be out of business, that puppies shouldn't be in cages," she says of the multiple litigants against her, adding that her store follows the law. She shrugged when asked to explain the rash of deaths.
This past August, a judge awarded Sunny Gatewood $713 for Cassie's vet bills -- but Lopez admits nothing. "It had parasites," the co-owner says of the Labrador. "That's something that's very common. They get it from standing in poop. That doesn't mean it's sick. She got her money."
When Riptide counters that Gatewood says she's still trying to collect the judgment, Lopez shrugs again: "I don't know anything about that."