The Doctor and the Rabbits

A Broward dentist saved hundreds of rabbits and became a national celebrity. Why do so many people fear him?

Steve Rosen owns a motorcycle, a jet plane, and a black Corvette. Even when he is not in a vehicle, the 52-year-old dentist is always moving. On the road, he likes to lead, but he's a bitch to follow. He alternately presses hard on the gas pedal, then forces down the brake. He flips on his blinkers with the same laxness others use when flicking cigarette ashes. In a few instances, the turn signal switches on after he's already made the turn. Rosen does not seem to notice. He apparently doesn't like to look back.

Despite his racecar-driver tendencies, Rosen arrives late for our meeting. He scurries into the Quarterdeck restaurant in Davie with his friend and comptroller, Howard Bloch. The hostess, who has been folding and unfolding the same napkin roll for the past ten minutes, alerts me to their presence. Then she goes back to her Sisyphean task.

Standing in the waiting area parallel to the bar, they are quite a pair. Rosen, a short man with tufts of gray hair, intense hazel eyes, and a round pouched stomach looks positively child-like next to Bloch, a lanky younger man with bugged eyes and a towering frame. But the image changes the minute Rosen opens his mouth to speak.

Bill Cooke
Steve Rosen spent an estimated $50,000 rescuing more than 300 jackrabbits at Miami International Airport. He's pictured here with one of the young ones.
Bill Cooke
Steve Rosen spent an estimated $50,000 rescuing more than 300 jackrabbits at Miami International Airport. He's pictured here with one of the young ones.

Rosen's voice, gravelly and rough, carries. The sound gets under your skin and stays there, in much the same way that a pebble, caught in a shoe, keeps pressing into your heel until it is removed. Bloch smiles when describing his boss. "With his voice and his brain," he says, "the man should have been a political analyst."

Rosen does not accept the compliment demurely. "Who's she interviewing? You or me?"

Then the dentist turned entrepreneur turned philanthropist explains apologetically that ever since the media became interested in his life, he always brings someone along with him to witness the proceedings.

Finally, the three of us are whisked away to a booth in the back. The waitress hands us menus, but Rosen barely glances at his. His meals, he boasts, are specially ordered. The dentist is a legend at the Quarterdeck, known both for his strict vegetarian diet and his excessive tipping. In fact, his generosity has spurred a few former waitstaff to work for a spell at Rosen's skin care company, Tend Skin, an organization that Reference USA, a guide to public and privately traded companies, estimates does about $2.5 million to $5 million in sales a year.

But Rosen doesn't want to talk business.

Slouching in his seat, the dentist pulls his baseball cap down over his eyes. His T-shirt, a green top with a picture of an eagle, stretches taut against his stomach. He pulls a folding knife from his jeans pocket. He opens the blade and waits for me to ask about it.

"It's not a knife," he says. "It's a paper cutter. It cost me $345."

Laying the blade on the table, Rosen pulls out his wallet and removes his National Rifle Association membership card. It's a strange choice of organization for one of the nation's best-known animal lovers. But, Rosen says quickly, "I don't associate with animal hunters...The only animal I've ever shot at was a clay pigeon." The dentist believes guns should be used only for defensive purposes. Say, for instance, if an intruder tries to enter his house.

Last February, the recent convert to vegetarianism learned that the federal government had ordered the killing of 500 rabbits at Miami International Airport. Unwilling to let the innocent animals die, he offered his own money to capture the animals and send them, via commercial air, to a wildlife sanctuary in Texas. The airport agreed, and the international media jumped all over the story. Rosen was featured on CNN, NBC, and Fox. He was called a hero and a warrior. "I didn't do it for personal gain," he modestly told reporters. "I've just always been attracted to animals in danger."

But the media missed the real story. Long before Rosen shelled out an estimated $50,000 to save the rabbits, he was one of the most litigious and controversial citizens in Broward County. The dentist has been embroiled in at least 22 lawsuits since 1988. He's sued friends, former employees, and colleagues. And some of them have sued him back. He's fought the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over claims he made in a brochure about his skin care product, sued other skin care companies for choosing names that sounded too much like Tend Skin, and sued a 23-year-old girl in part for filing what he maintains were false harassment claims. In at least two cases, he's hired a private investigator to look into former associates' backgrounds.

And apparently, he dislikes certain journalists. A few weeks after we first met for lunch, Rosen decided he wanted nothing to do with me. After a four-hour meeting and several phone calls, he unexpectedly turned hostile, telling me that if I tried to contact him again, he'd sue me for harassment, then run a background check on me. "How'd you like that?" he asked before letting loose a string of expletives. He'd done such a check on Leonora LaPeter, a St. Petersburg Times reporter who profiled him in July, he said. Then he refused to explain and hung up the phone.

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