The Doctor and the Rabbits

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

When Zeppieri threatened to leave, she claims that Rosen replied, face sweating and fingers pointing, "I will make your life a living hell. You have no idea what you're in for."

Zeppieri decided not to stick around to find out. She filed a sexual harassment claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and quit her job, according to court documents.

But the saga continued. When a female police officer came to talk to Rosen about the pair's relationship, the dentist denied that he ever had any feelings for Zeppieri. "It was the other way around," the officer reported him saying. "I can see where this is going, when girls want to get back at you, they cry sexual attack... You girls are all alike -- you stick together and take each other's sides."

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.

In a later deposition, in a federal case, Rosen claims that Zeppieri and Pokotilow were intimately involved and had tried together to destroy his business.

Indeed, there's a thicket of documents filed in state and federal court that raises questions about Rosen's behavior, not just in regard to Zeppieri but to others. For example, Michael Shapiro, Pokotilow's cousin and a former Tend Skin vendor, is in litigation with Rosen. One of his allegations: Rosen threatened that, if he refused to testify in his favor in another case, he'd "smash [Shapiro] over the head with a baseball bat," "bankrupt [Shapiro]," and "shut [Shapiro] down."

"You know how vindictive I am," Shapiro remembers Rosen saying. "Why try to fight me?"

Rosen denies the claims, pointing out that Shapiro's relationship to Pokotilow prejudices him.

But Nicolini confirms the negative descriptions of Rosen. "Working for him was a farce, an absolute farce," Nicolini says. "It was either you kissed his ass or you lost your job."

Nicolini lost her job.

The rabbits that ran loose at Miami International Airport last year were not your typical Easter bunnies. These were black-tailed jackrabbits that measured three feet in length at full stride. Think of them as your pet bunny's older tougher cousin -- they were tan-colored, long-whiskered, and beady-eyed. And they would bite. About 500 of them lived in the bushes and hid in the shadows near the runways. And like most residents of South Florida, these rabbits were not native to Florida. They came from the southwestern United States.

Theories abound as to how the rabbits got to Miami. One popular story holds that an illegal shipment of the animals broke loose at the airport one day. Another hypothesis is that the animals were brought here to train greyhounds and, when they were no longer needed, were let loose. Whatever the reason, their arrival at MIA gave Angela Gittens, the airport director, a massive headache.

Gittens is a serious no-nonsense woman with a strong jaw and thick expressive eyebrows. Her gold hoop earrings are nearly as big and round as her glasses. She dresses conservatively and looks professional, as if she has something to prove. And perhaps she does. She's both the first woman and the first African-American to head one of the nation's busiest airports.

What started the whole rabbit crisis for Gittens was the Miami-Dade commissioners' decision to erect an 8,600-foot runway. When Federal Aviation Administration officials arrived to study the plans in May 2002, they noted the animals, which had taken refuge in the area proposed for the runway, would be a hazard. Authorities worried the rabbits would attract turkey vultures, and the vultures would then collide with airplanes. When the FAA returned in February 2003 to finalize the construction plans, they gave Gittens a deadline to get rid of the rabbits.

When Gittens heard this, her heart sank. She could visualize the headlines: "Airport Director Murders Harmless Bunnies." Activists were already calling with complaints. "I knew the public-relations mess we would have on our hands," she says.

She asked several assistants to call wildlife conservation organizations, a police animal rescue unit, and various zoos for help. But because they were talking about more than 300 rabbits, her assistants kept running into roadblocks. The best bet, Ron Magill, spokesperson for Miami's Metrozoo, said sadly last February, was to kill them. Albeit humanely.

Then, just when Gittens had reached the end of her rope, Steve Rosen walked into her life. It was a blessing, she thought.

The dentist, who seemed a sympathetic sort, said he had read about the doomed rabbits in the paper and wanted to help. Rather than kill the animals at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $20,000, Rosen suggested, why not let him spend his own money to hire trappers to cage the rabbits and then transport them to a wildlife sanctuary in their native territory?

Gittens was cautious. "He seemed OK," she recalls. "But the main issue at that point was whether he could get the various permits and approvals he needed."

He could, and he did.

"I was impressed," Gittens said. Although she had already signed papers allowing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to shoot the rabbits, she put the brakes on. She gave Rosen one week.

He got started right away. First, he hired Todd Hardwick, owner of an animal-control company called Pesky Critters, to catch the rabbits. Hardwick began work on April 20. With Washington apples and salt licks, Hardwick and his crew lured the creatures during the wee hours of the night. Volunteers stood by, ready to help load the rabbits onto trucks. Those that didn't respond to the traps were caught by their tails.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help