Just a few hours into the new year, someone turned Broward County's puppy war into an actual firefight.
Pembroke Police say that sometime between 3 and 8 in the morning on January 1, 12 rounds of ammunition were fired into the windows of Wizard of Claws, a strip-mall pet boutique that bills itself as the nation's premier supplier of puppies to the stars.
One of the bullets punched through three walls and into a back room where caged dogs slept. But none of the animals was struck. The large posters of tiny dogs on the store's front windows weren't so fortunate, however. Among them: an enormous photograph of Tommy, a pampered "teacup" puppy and the store mascot, whose mug was pocked with bullet holes.
For store owners Jim and Gilda Anderson, the shooting was more evidence that the store's enemies have taken things way too far.
And the store has many, many enemies.
For more than four years at the Pembroke Pines location, the Andersons have catered to an apparently insatiable desire by some dog fanciers for teacup pups, dogs bred to weigh less than 12 pounds when fully grown, small enough to fit comfortably under an arm, in a purse, or, as the name implies, in a teacup. Costing up to thousands of dollars, the tiny pups seem to be an obsession with the boutique's wealthy clients, who include the famous (Sharon and Kelly Osbourne) and the not-so-famous (Pia Zadora). Selling about 200 of the animals every month, the store has a staff of more than 20 and allows the Andersons to own a Hummer, a Lamborghini, and a $400,000 home in Fort Lauderdale.
But with the Andersons' success has come a remarkable backlash. Naturally, animal rights activists consider any business that moves so many designer dogs a "puppy mill." But the Andersons have also found themselves facing the wrath of teacup fans who claim that Wizard of Claws takes advantage of customers by selling unhealthy animals and gasp dogs that grow large.
At least 20 lawsuits have been filed by grieving pet owners who claim they were sold animals with illnesses or with misleading promises about pedigree certification, or by angry fanciers who saw their teacup pups grow into normal-sized adult dogs. Nine of those suits are still pending. The Southeast Florida Better Business Bureau has received and processed 52 complaints about the store and revoked its membership in June. Wizard of Claws detractors post warnings about the store on numerous Internet forums, hoping to alert the unwary. And one former client runs a website, www.stopwizardofclaws.com, that monitors the legal fights against the store.
Twice last year, however, state investigators inspected Wizard of Claws and found no health violations to report. "We've had over 17 inspections over the years because of this activist crap," Jim Anderson says. "Every one of them is clean."
The store owners are also bracing themselves for an inspection of another sort: They've learned that WTVJ-TV (Channel 6) plans to air an investigation of Wizard of Claws during the February "sweeps" period.
Anderson remains defiant, his puppy boutique still open despite years of pitched battles with detractors. But his own pedigree is one that raises questions, some that he has less-than-satisfactory answers for.
Only the puppies, it seems, remain entirely innocent in this fight.
Owing, perhaps, to its success and the unique personalities of its founders, Wizard of Claws has become the epicenter of a uniquely South Florida battle between entrepreneurship and animal activism that has spiraled out of control and into paranoia, litigation even a dozen bullets.
People with complaints about Wizard of Claws, and they are legion, tend to tell a similar tale. Almost exclusively, they discovered the store through the Internet.
The Wizard of Claws website is slick and folksy at the same time, featuring terminally cute pups dressed up like dolls, along with photos of the celebrity clients who buy them. The Andersons are also careful to avoid the notion that what they run is a "pet store." Repeatedly, they describe Wizard of Claws as a "breeder's network."
"It was just the kind of breeder I was looking for," former customer Trish Wurl writes in a complaint she sent to an anti-Wizard of Claws website. "I checked out their website and was very impressed."
"It was the website it pulled me in. Hook, line, and sinker," says Sandi Stachelek, a real estate agent in Philadelphia and Fort Lauderdale who bought Gracie, a Maltese/poodle mix, in July for $1,363. "I was usually so picky about buying dogs that I would drive to another state to get one. What got me hooked on Wizard of Claws was impulse buying, I guess."
But arriving at the store, many say, is a bit of a shock.
"I went to the local shop that same weekend," Wurl writes. "And I was somewhat bewildered because of the location in the strip mall; it was definitely not what I expected."
And the scruffy location isn't the only thing some found strange about the place. Many remark that they were unnerved that despite the large scale of the operation, the puppies are kept out of sight. The animals are brought individually from the back room to be shown to customers.
"I should've known when they brought the dogs all out and you couldn't see the kennel," Stachelek says. "Every other dog I've bought, I got to see right where they were. I was in the barn, in the food kennel; I got to see the people's houses."
"It's just a really, really weird kind of place," says Tracy Smith, who spent $1,300 on a puppy. "They go behind these double doors, and it's like the great unknown you're not supposed to see it. We handled three dogs there and then came home, took off our clothes, and took showers."
The store's detractors claim that the puppies are sickly and malnourished when they emerge from the back room. "You can tell they spray cologne on the dog before they come out," says Rebecca Lewis, who bought a $2,500 Yorkie named Rocko in March. "The dogs look sick. They've got horrible runny eyes, they look malnourished, and their hair doesn't look nice."
Despite her concerns, Laura Weiss says she felt compelled to take home a $742 Japanese Chin named Petey last February. "We really bought the dog because we were afraid the dog was not going to make it if he was left in there," she says.
"We look at our dog as a rescue," echoes Smith.
Two days after taking Gracie home, Stachelek says the pup was wheezing and coughing. Several months after her purchase, Weiss found that her Petey was having seizures. Jodi Saltzman says her $1,000 dachshund/poodle began coughing as soon as she took him home.
Many customers report that Wizard of Claws is slow to answer phone calls or is unhelpful or rude in the face of complaints. Some have taken advantage of the store's refund policy, which is required by Florida's Companion Animal Pet Law. Stachelek, however, says she couldn't bring herself to return Gracie and poured her time and energy into treating the dog herself.
"I'm supposed to be selling real estate, and for the first two months of Gracie's life, I didn't sell a house," she says. "All I did was take care of this dog. I was literally a veterinary nurse for two months."
Others took their ill puppies to a vet recommended by the Andersons, Jan Bellows. (Bellows severed his relationship with Wizard of Claws in the fall.) There, they say, Bellows' waiting room was often filled with other owners who had bought sick puppies at Wizard of Claws.
Angered by what they perceive is a scam, owners have taken to the Internet to warn others. "All these dogs are very sick," Laura Weiss says, "and we knew how outrageous [Bellows'] prices were from a past visit. I thought, if I take this dog to this guy, I'm going to have a $2,000 bill in about two minutes."
Increasingly, the complaints are giving way to lawsuits. In August 2003, Jacqueline Feldman sued Wizard of Claws for breach of contract and fraud regarding the sale of her $2,500 miniature bull terrier. According to Feldman's complaint, Wizard of Claws "did not provide registration papers within 90 days" and misrepresented the puppy's pedigree, claiming that the dog was sired by Spuds Mackenzie, the celebrity dog that appeared in Bud Light commercials in the late 1980s. In fact, Spuds' suds were nowhere in the family tree.
Anderson acknowledged that the puppy was no progeny of Spuds but of a pair of bull terriers from Colombia. He says that Feldman had misunderstood him that he'd referred to another dog, not the one he sold her. The suit was settled in November 2003.
A month later, six more people filed a lawsuit against Wizard of Claws, claiming that the store had committed fraud. Their dogs, they complained, had died suddenly after hemorrhages, mysterious (and possibly hereditary) illnesses, and pneumonia. Some had deformities. Others had grown much larger than promised. The progress of this six-plaintiff suit is followed closely by www.stopwizardofclaws.com and other web forums.
In September, Fourth District Court of Appeal Judge Mark Polen and his wife, Barbara, who breed Yorkshire terriers and bought a puppy from Wizard of Claws with the intent to breed it, filed suit complaining that Wizard of Claws "fraudulently stated that the puppy was registered with the AKC [American Kennel Club] when in fact it was not." The Polens are seeking damages for the cost of an estimated 16 puppies they could have sold for $15,000 each.
And last August, Vanessa Bosse, the wealthy wife of an attorney who splits her time between Sunny Isles and Monaco, charged the Andersons with violation of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act and the "Pet Lemon" law, fraudulent misrepresentation, fraudulent inducement, misleading advertising, and breach of contract. Bosse claimed that her puppy, a Chihuahua named Nacho, had grown larger than the three pounds Wizard of Claws guaranteed he would not exceed.
By two ounces.
James Ray Anderson cuts an intimidating figure, even when he's trying to make a good impression.
He resembles a bull stuffed into a business suit. His red, meaty neck and hands are enormous, a leftover from years of bodybuilding and steroid use that he says are behind him now. As he walks through his pet store, he passes a cage containing a quivering, yipping puppy whose yelping drowns out his salesman patter. He leans over the dog and purses his lips. "Give him a kiss," he whispers in a rocky rumble, "and he shuts up."
Born in Maine, Anderson's first businesses reflected his physical appearance: He founded Maine's first coed health club in 1980 and a tanning salon tailored for women in 1984. In the late 1980s, he was selling designer clothing. "I'm worse than a woman where it comes to clothes," he says. "I'm a bitch; I'm a male bitch."
In Florida, Anderson resumed a childhood passion for raising and selling exotic animals. Growing up, he says he sold fancy guppies from his basement, then graduated to his first cougar at age 18. By the early 1990s, Anderson was living in Fort Lauderdale and dealing exotic animals from his beach home with U.S. Department of Agriculture and Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission licenses.
Anderson says he was the "number-one broker of exotics" in the country and perhaps the world. He claims the trade journal Animal Finders ran a story about him called "Mr. Slick" that profiled his business as a flashy operation that fueled fancy cars and high living. But the editor of Animal Finders, Pat Hogan, does not remember and could not locate such an article.
In 1994, USDA investigators came to his home and spent seven days investigating his property. A year later, in 1995, the USDA suspended Anderson's license and fined him $20,000 for incorrectly labeling animal shipping containers. His license was reinstated in 30 days, and Anderson dismisses the episode as a "political thing" and a "paperwork violation" that was a result of meddling by animal activists.
A 1995 Sun-Sentinel story described Anderson and his brother-in-law stalking and capturing Dania Beach fringe-faced vervets using blow darts. Anderson traded seven monkeys to a South Dade breeder, who gave him six fennec foxes in return, which Anderson later sold out of state for $4,500. The vervet monkeys were non-indigenous exotic animals with few protections against trapping, and Anderson claimed that he was not breaking the law by capturing them. Lt. John West, with the state's Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, was quoted as saying that Anderson had never been charged with animal cruelty nor with anything serious enough to cause the commission to revoke his license.
In the late 1990s, Anderson had interests other than exotic animals. A bodybuilder, Anderson says he was "big, bad, and beefy," but he wanted to be more so. He lost an entire calf muscle as a result of a botched calf-implant operation in Canada, and during a long recovery, his exotic animal collection dwindled and business suffered.
In 1999, Anderson's home and warehouse were raided by the Broward Sheriff's Office, which turned up marijuana and steroids. He bonded out after being charged with multiple counts of drug possession and was sentenced in 2001 to a year in jail. He served four months.
Anderson refuses to speak about the criminal conviction. "I believe that my problem is my problem," he says.
The same year as the raid, however, Anderson met Gilda Perez, a statuesque Cuban beauty. They soon began planning a pet business together, selling cats, birds, and puppies from Anderson's home. Just days after Anderson's arrest, Perez filed incorporation papers for "Wizard of Cl'oz," a precursor business of their present store. The couple married on January 1, 2000.
Later that year, Anderson again ran afoul of the USDA, this time over the mistreatment of a litter of Bengal tiger kittens he says he had given his teenaged children (from a previous marriage) to raise and sell on their own. A buyer's complaint sparked several investigations of Anderson's exotic-breeding business and eventually culminated in a $4,600 fine. The Andersons let the "Wizard of Cl'oz" corporation lapse that September.
How Wizard of Claws started is not entirely clear. Anderson claims that while he was serving time for his drug charges in 2001, Gilda launched a new venture, www.bygilda.com, that sold only dogs. That business, he says, is what grew into their current venture.
"The company started from my wife, on bygilda.com," Anderson says. "Four breeds, me and my lovely wife, working 24-hour days, seven days a week, crying in the morning, cleaning dog poop."
But there's no reference to ByGilda in Broward County archives, and early, archived web records of Wizard of Claws suggest that the new business sold exotic animals as well as dogs.
Wizard of Claws was incorporated in 2002 under Gilda Anderson's name, and Jim Anderson listed himself only as a consultant and marketing director on official paperwork. Initially, the couple worked from home. But then they struck a deal with veterinarian Jan Bellows they'd take over the remainder of Bellows' storefront lease at 9113 Taft St. on the condition that Bellows be their house vet.
Today, the Wizard of Claws site receives 8,000 hits each day. "This facility does the business of eight average local pet stores in a month," Anderson boasts. "And our biggest business is repeat." The product is high-quality dogs that Anderson likens to designer clothing. "A two-pound Maltese is like a Chanel jacket," he says. "It's very hard to find and very hard to produce. Wizard of Claws is willing to pay more money for a better-quality dog."
Anderson compares his business to the Humane Society. "We do the same thing," he says. "We place puppies in quality homes. Here, they pay for it; there, they do it for free. It's all about placement." The Andersons also have an adoption program, for older, less desirable animals that are sold for "the price of medical care and vaccinations," roughly $300. If they are still not bought, some animals are given away.
The facility both the retail boutique and a nearby space Anderson calls "the nursery" covers 7,000 square feet, making it one of the largest pet stores in the state.
The showroom is decorated with statuary and artificial vines. Incense fills the air, and New Age music plays quietly in the background. "Puppy consultants" salespeople dressed head-to-toe in blue scrubs swish back and forth between computer stations and filing cabinets carrying manila folders. They shepherd prospective buyers who have appointments to "living rooms," which are couches arranged around wooden floor pens where puppies are placed for viewing.
Customers are prevented from going through double doors to the actual cages.
"We're a closed kennel for three reasons," Anderson says. "Firstly, if people especially children go into the kennel, it's very stressful for the puppies. Two disease control. We don't need that exposure level. Three customer opinion. How many times do you walk into a kennel and hear people say, 'Oh, poor dog!'?"
Anderson won't allow photographs to be taken of the kennel area, but he takes a reporter on a tour, and indeed, the visit seems to be stressful for the dogs. As soon as a stranger walks in, puppies explode into a chorus of yipping, creating an almost painful din. But other than being obviously cooped up Anderson says that only the larger breeds are walked outside their cages for ten minutes per day the animals seem bright-eyed and active.
Made of flexible, rubber-coated wire that bounces when the animals move, the cages, each housing one or two pups, are suspended above shallow sluices that lead to troughs. Anderson says the troughs are cleaned daily. He points out the special features that he says make the kennel comfortable and safe for his animals, with ideal temperature and humidity (75.6 degrees, humidity 55 to 65 percent) and music and lights left on for the animals at night. There's a $20,000 self-watering system, air conditioners with high-intensity air purifiers, and $30 pink, full-spectrum lights overhead that help the dogs "assimilate vitamins."
"I have eight full-time Latin I say that with respect workers who take care of the pets. They don't wash like Americans they wash with rags," he says, adding that they bleach the floors every day.
Ill pups are kept in the facility Anderson calls the "nursery," located across the strip mall's parking lot in a separate storefront. There, the cages lining the walls are filled with animals that do look distressed. A Chihuahua puppy trembles; a bulldog on its back emits a steady wheeze, which Anderson indicates is "kennel cough."
"There's nothing hidden!" he says.
In April 2002, Shannon Ford decided to buy a teacup pug. It was a time of transition for Ford she had won the Miss Florida USA Pageant the year before and was serving out her term after competing in the Miss USA pageant in March. Itching to leave South Florida for New York City, Ford was scouring southern Florida for pug breeders and soon found the Andersons, who were still running Wizard of Claws out of their home.
Ford knew exactly what she needed: a dog that was small enough to take on an airplane and that was AKC certified. In conversations with the Andersons, she specified that the dog had to weigh less than 12 pounds full-grown. For $950, the Wizard sold Ford a "teacup pug" that she says they told her was registered with the AKC and that would eventually weigh about eight pounds.
After arriving in New York with her new purchase, Honey Bear, Ford e-mailed the Andersons full of praise. "I would refer people to them, tell them to go to the website," she says. "I was one of their biggest advocates."
Then one day, instead of AKC registration papers, Ford received papers for Honey Bear from the American Canine Association. "I never would've bought a dog that wasn't AKC," she says."That was my first red flag." Then, when the dog was still less than a year old, Ford took her for a vet checkup and discovered that Honey Bear weighed 15 pounds, already three pounds more than what the Andersons had promised. "The vet told me, 'She's still going to grow, Shannon,'" she says. "And sure enough, she grew."
By June 2003, Honey Bear weighed close to 25 pounds a full 13 pounds over her promised "teacup" weight. Ford reported Wizard of Claws to the Better Business Bureau and then let the matter drop. "My dog was alive; it didn't affect me any more," she says. "I felt kind of fortunate that I at least had a dog. And I really kind of left it at that."
But last year, Ford came across an Internet message board with complaints about Wizard of Claws. A woman had bought a poodle that was ill. Ford knew how to file complaints with the Department of Agriculture as well as the Better Business Bureau, and she contacted the woman, who was grateful.
It gave Ford an idea. She anonymously launched www.stopwizardofclaws.com on January 19, 2005. The site features her research on the Andersons, information about Florida's Companion Animal Law (commonly known as the "Pet Lemon Law"), contact info for agencies that receive consumer complaints, and data about puppies that Wizard of Claws bought in on-line auctions but later, Ford says, sold to customers with false health and size claims.
Last year, the site received more than 24,000 hits.
"I don't necessarily want to shut them down," Ford says. "I don't think they mistreat the animals. I think there's some sort of bacteria or virus there. I just want them to use fair trade practices, and to not deny that they buy from puppy brokers. I really hoped when I first started that they would shape up their act and stop scamming people."
The Andersons began noticing the effect of Ford's website in early 2005. Stung by a sudden rise in aggressive and belligerent phone calls, e-mails, and customer comments, they bought other domain names, toppuppies.com and elitepuppies.com, and began referring customers to those websites to avoid the negative sites called up by a Google search on "Wizard of Claws." They also launched www.friendsofwizardofclaws.com, on which they defend themselves against the "cruel and slanderous campaign that is a personal vendetta launched by one person." They also consulted a lawyer, Andrew Gerson, and began searching for the identity of the person behind Ford's site, with the intent of filing a libel lawsuit.
In May, the Andersons complained to GoDaddy.com, the service provider of Ford's site, and GoDaddy contacted Ford, asking her to respond to the complaint. But Ford was on a cruise and didn't get GoDaddy's message. So on May 18, GoDaddy removed her privacy protection, revealing her name and address to the Andersons and their lawyer. Six days later, Gerson threatened to sue GoDaddy and Ford for hosting the "patently slanderous, opprobrious, and false accusations made about my client via your website."
On June 1, Gerson sent Ford a cease-and-desist letter, but she says that only prompted her to strengthen the site's documentation and fact-checking. "At that time," she says, "I went into the website and I reworded everything to be more specific about things for which I have concrete evidence."
But Jim Anderson says Ford had ulterior motives for putting up the site. "She was using our name to promote her businesses," he says, claiming that she was simply a puppy seller herself who wanted to hurt a competitor. "Now she's taken all her archives off the web. I wonder why?" Anderson says that Ford was directing traffic from her anti-Wizard of Claws website to her own websites, among them several websites that sold puppy supplies and, yes, teacup puppies.
Ford says she stopped selling dogs as soon as she started her website. Internet records show, however, that Ford was offering puppies for sale on Internet pet websites in late January and February 2005 and referring customers to a website called www.parkavenuepuppies.com. "Located in New York City," the website said, "Park Avenue Puppies specializes in home-raised teacup and toy size puppies." Though Park Avenue Puppies.com is not currently owned by Ford, as late as August, the site was offering German shepherd puppies for sale from a "fellow breeder in Miami." Ford's mother raises and sells German shepherds in Miami.
Ford reveled in her first real victory against the Andersons in August, when Wizard of Claws' membership in the Southeast Florida Better Business Bureau was revoked. Ford had been directing people to forward complaints to the bureau.
In September, the Andersons sued Ford and GoDaddy for libel.
Ford says her supporters cheered the move, but she wasn't so pleased. The beauty queen's conservative background had always made her partnership with other animal activists an uneasy one, yet now she was seen as their ringleader. She felt that her objections to Wizard of Claws were based on consumer rights issues, while others who oppose the store see the selling of puppies itself as a fundamentally evil activity.
"I think there are good pet stores," Ford says. "There are people who probably want to eliminate commercial breeders completely, but I'm not one of them."
Still, it was too late to turn back. "I personally think that they thought I would back down and shut up. But it would take a lot for me to completely take it down."
"Don't mistake her for a dumb blond," says Palm Beach attorney Marcy LaHart, who is litigating the six-plaintiff lawsuit against Wizard of Claws and has led other efforts to shut down "puppy mills."
"With Shannon, they sold the puppy to the wrong person," LaHart says.
Ford is fighting the Andersons' libel suit, and after she subpoenaed Jan Bellows, the veterinarian severed his relationship with Wizard of Claws. (Bellows declined to comment for this story.)
But the lawsuit is taking its toll, she says. "My entire life is in South Florida. I don't want my name smeared. I don't have the funds to go fight for libel. It's gotten to the point where I'm scared about my safety."
Jim Anderson says he can "destroy" everything printed on Ford's website, and he has an answer for every complaint against his store. He doesn't sell sick puppies, he says. Doing so would make no sense.
"Where do I make the money from that?" he asks. "You can't profit from a sick dog."
He places the blame for puppy illness on customers. "The dogs leave here healthy. A week later, they have stress-induced illnesses." He uses hypoglycemia, acute low blood sugar, as an example: "Hypoglycemia does not exist in Wizard of Claws' vocabulary. It's not a disease, but it's people-induced. People take these little dogs and let them run around like little dogs. They go to sleep, they get weak, and when they get up, they convulse."
Anderson says his business has regularly been inspected without a violation. Ricky Bell, a law enforcement investigator for the state department of agriculture and consumer services, conducted two inspections of WOC's premises in June and December of 2005. Both times, Wizard of Claws passed, though Bell admits that he alerted Anderson before investigating the kennel. "The investigation is closed, and we didn't find any wrongdoing," Bell says. "I didn't find any violations. We didn't have any victims."
Diana Fuchs, administrator of Companion Animal Program (the "Pet Lemon Law") for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, confirms Anderson's claim that Wizard of Claws has a clean record. "There have been a number of complaints against Wizard of Claws," she says, "but the majority of them have been resolved satisfactorily. At this point, we have no outstanding complaints with them. Wizard of Claws responded in a way that we would want them to respond. Quite frequently, they have asked us to fax a complaint to them so that they can respond to you faster. I wish they would all do that."
The high volume of the Andersons' business also suggests that the majority of the store's customers are happy. Anderson estimates that he sells 200 dogs a month, which means that only about 5 percent of customers are filing formal complaints with outside agencies about the store.
However, Fuchs admits, having a clean record doesn't guarantee that there isn't a problem. "With only two open complaints on them now, it's not really an issue for us," she says. "It's not that Wizard of Claws isn't a big issue, but the problem is that I don't have a lot of unresolved issues with Wizard of Claws. If there are other issues that have not been reported to us, we can't do anything about it."
With the government pacified, the Andersons still have their numerous court battles to fight. In the meantime, business is good. The couple plans to expand its storefront and has incorporated two new business names, Dog Breeder Kennel Inc. and Celebrity Kennels Inc.
Jim Anderson says the new business will have the "largest dog inventory in the world" and will work in conjunction with Wizard of Claws, no matter how many people don't like it.
So far, he has no plans to outfit his pups with bulletproof vests.
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