BIG PINE KEY, Florida Keys — The film "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" fetched relatively impressive box-office sales figures. However, the pint-sized pooch who "starred" in the flick and its sequel isn't any more engaging than the Chihuahua quartet that presides over Strike Zone Charters, a leading dive and snorkel excursion business on Big Pine in the Lower Florida Keys.
In fact, the diminutive dogs are so popular with Strike Zone clients that they might one day eclipse Key deer as the Lower Keys' unofficial mascot.
The miniature Key deer, an endangered but rebounding species, have been protected within the boundaries of the region's National Key Deer Refuge for more than 50 years. Their likeness appears on everything from souvenir T-shirts to the chamber of commerce logo.
In contrast, Strike Zone's Chihuahuas don't need federal protection. Even dive shop co-owner Gayle Tippett admits that the engaging little critters — whose wardrobes include sunglasses, life jackets, holiday costumes and collars featuring authentic Spanish treasure coins — are spoiled rotten.
Tippett, who was given the emporium's first pup to save it from incarceration at the pound, began the spoiling process on day one.
"Her name is Needa because she needed a home, she needed a mother, she needed a bed and she needed to go to the vet," said Tippett of her canine companion.
One Chihuahua somehow led to another. After Needa's many needs were met, Strike Zone co-owners Mary and Larry Threlkeld acquired Javier and then fluffy white Corona, who was named for the Mexican beer. Later, Madison became the fourth member of the dive emporium's in-house dog pack.
Though tiny in stature, all four dogs display larger-than-life personalities. Despite being spoiled, they have regular "jobs" such as welcoming customers who stop by the shop and supervising when divers, snorkelers and other water enthusiasts depart on one of Strike Zone's catamarans.
"In the afternoon our VHS radio goes off, and I can be on the phone and all of a sudden I hear this barking, because they can recognize our captains' voices on the radio," said Tippett. "You open the door and they run out and greet the passengers."
Occasionally one of the Chihuahuas might ride along on a catamaran under the watchful eye of a Strike Zone captain or even attend the quirky Underwater Music Festival held each July in Lower Keys waters.
Like other passengers, the dogs have their own "shades" and life jackets. The latter are fitted with little handles so the captain and crewmembers can pick them up easily.
Unusual as their boating garb is, it's the canine quartet's collars that spark the most comments. "A friend of ours was one of the discoverers of the El Cazador Spanish ship," said Tippett, referring to a centuries-old shipwreck loaded with silver coins found off the Louisiana coast.
"All of our dogs have gold chains with El Cazador coins, which seems to attract people's attention." Clearly, Needa is needy no more. She and her Chihuahua cohorts have become Strike Zone's tail-wagging ambassadors, delighting customers who arrive to dive and snorkel the Lower Keys' underwater wonders and living coral reef.
"Strike Zone is well known for being the home of the Chihuahuas," said Tippett. "We're even hoping to have a T-shirt made with their pictures on it."
"Wench pooch" Madison sports a pirate dress and collar adorned with a genuine treasure coin. Photos courtesy of Strike Zone Charters
Strike Zone's Gayle Tippett (on phone) keeps a fond eye on the costumed canine preparing to greet customers.
"Superdog" Javier is ready to tackle any job.
Corona chills at Strike Zone in a classy pair of "designer" shades.