Nelson Diaz with Francis, er, Frances Bacon
Nelson Diaz with Francis, er, Frances Bacon
Steve Satterwhite

Puppy Dog Tales

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.)

Diaz, whose works have been included in many international exhibitions and hang in the permanent collection at the University of Miami, his alma mater, admits to embarrassment at not knowing the gender of his pet. But what happened next, he says, was even more disturbing.

After prescribing some medication for the dog, Diaz says Cepeda turned his attention to the dog's master, sitting down next to him "and coming on to me in a sexually threatening way." When he rebuffed Cepeda's advances, Diaz says, the green-smocked tech jumped up, cursed him in Spanish, and then ordered staffers outside the consulting room to call the police. For the next hour, Diaz says, he was held in the office, against his will, as several All Pets' employees stood in the hallway to prevent him from leaving. During his detention, Diaz says he telephoned Jesus Canoura and told him what was going on. Canoura says he advised Diaz to call the police himself.

The police did arrive, but no charges were filed. Instead the cops suggested Diaz see a lawyer. He did.

In a May 10 letter to All Pets' owner Pedro M. Diaz, attorney Keith M. Stern alleges a prima facie case of false imprisonment and threatens to file a civil lawsuit against the firm if Nelson Diaz is not compensated for his "emotional distress and humiliation" by a payment of $15,000. "The rage. The anger. The disappointment. I felt like I had been stripped naked," explains Diaz, a soft-spoken man who has temporarily shuttered his New York studio to work on a new collection of paintings here. "I have traveled everywhere, but I have never felt more humiliated. It was one of the worst experiences I've ever had."

Pedro Diaz and Jesus Canoura, neither of whom was present during the May 1 incident, say Nelson Diaz's claim is laughable. All Pets' attorney Jay R. Tomé responded with a letter to Stern saying Diaz is lucky he was not arrested for trespass and assault and battery. "He went crazy, calling the staff whores and faggots," Jesus Canoura says in Spanish.

Pedro Diaz said Nelson Diaz is simply trying to extort money from the clinic, and invited him to sue. Says Nelson Diaz: "I'm thinking about it."

Ironically Nelson Diaz, along with Cindy Karp, Marlene Kutza, and Gabrielle Carella, insist that despite their disgust and anger with Puppy Kingdom and All Pets, bringing a dog into their lives was one of the best decisions they ever made. Frances, sleek and frisky, is "an extension of my life," says Diaz. To Karp, 50 years old, a well-known photojournalist whose work has appeared in Time, People, the New York Times, and other major publications, Jake is the child she never had.

Kutza, who is 21 years old, works in the office of Coconut Grove veterinarian Michael Marmesh, who over the past two years has treated dozens of dogs from Puppy Kingdom. "It's to the point where if we get a healthy dog from there it's rare," comments Marmesh. And Kutza admits she was aware of that reputation when she went into the shop to look around. Still she fell in love with a dog she named Max. "I don't regret it," she says of Max, whom she describes as wiry, hyperactive, and way overpriced. "I'd rather have him with me than having him there."

After Oso died, Carella says she returned to Puppy Kingdom and asked for a refund. The Canouras refused but did offer her another, more expensive dog. She picked what was billed as a purebred black Labrador. She named her Locita -- little crazy one.

But at ten months, Carella says, Locita weighs only 27 pounds and has parasites. "No way is this a purebred Lab," she says. "I am happy with the dog, but I don't like being lied to. I talk to as many people as possible, wishing they don't have to go through the same experience I had."

Puppy Kingdom is not the only pet shop with unhappy customers, and the puppies they sell may be no more sickly than puppy mill products sold in any other pet store. In the past three years, seventeen complaints have been lodged against pet sellers, according to Patrick Smickle of the Miami-Dade County Consumer Services Department, but only one against Puppy Kingdom -- for failure to supply AKC papers. And Florida is one of at least fifteen states with a "Puppy Lemon Law," which in some cases gives buyers the right to return a sick or dead dog for a refund or replacement.

But these laws don't stop puppy retailers from targeting first-time dog buyers who, like neophyte parents, rarely grasp the work and responsibility involved in having a full-time dependent. Among new puppy owners, buyers' remorse is as common as poop on the rug. "We see the aftermath of these impulse buys all the time," says Donna Hernandez, office manager at the Country Club Animal Hospitals in West Miami-Dade. Those regrets are compounded when dealing with dogs from puppy mills, she adds, which frequently have parasites and even develop viruses for which they should have been vaccinated.

"We recommend buying from private breeders or animal shelters," says Hernandez. "Often people go into a pet shop just to look around. They have no intention of buying. But these animals are very cute and hard to resist -- and expensive. Having a dog is a long-term commitment, maybe fifteen to twenty years. People need to think about that."

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