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Puppy Love?

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."

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Julia Reischel

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