The Doctor and the Rabbits

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

Injured rabbits or those too young to be airlifted were sent to a rabbit sanctuary in Miami run by Dana Krempels, a University of Miami biologist. "Steve," she says dramatically, "is a warrior. None of this would have been accomplished without him."

Most of the animals ended up in a 240-acre refuge about half an hour outside Dallas. By the end of the week, Hardwick and the volunteers had managed to rescue an estimated 75 rabbits.

But about 250 rabbits were still running loose. Airport officials announced in mid-April that they were about to send in the sharpshooters. Rosen responded by helping to round up protesters. Some of them even dressed in rented rabbit costumes and homemade floppy rabbit ears, then stood outside County Hall picketing. Others flooded the voice mailboxes of the airport staff with so many messages that the system broke down. Gittens received letters from angry activists calling her a "Nazi" and demanding her resignation. Mary Tyler Moore even sent her own letter, tsk-tsking the killings.

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.

The campaign worked. On April 28, then Miami-Dade County Manager Steve Shiver, whose own daughter asked why her daddy wanted to kill the rabbits, announced that he had granted the creatures a stay of execution for one month.

The relief, though, was short-lived. In quick spurts, Shiver left office and the USDA was called in. Rosen fought back the only way he knew how: He got his lawyer, Anthony Pelle, to file for an injunction.

To Rosen's surprise, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Norman Gerstein granted the request. "He must have either had a cancellation that afternoon or else he loved rabbits," Pelle remembered.

On July 10, Gerstein held a five-hour emergency hearing. The judge listened sympathetically to the activists' claims but ultimately ruled that the airport wouldn't violate any animal cruelty laws by allowing the shootings. He ordered the bunny executions to commence.

Although at this point the team had rescued an estimated 300 rabbits, one month later, Rosen was at it again, complaining to Gittens about breaches of security on the runways, the way the sharpshooters were killing the animals, and the theft of three of his traps two months before. He even demanded to see the rabbits' carcasses, alleging that the USDA was exaggerating the number of kills to appear efficient.

The allegations were absurd, Gittens says. Sitting in her office in September, rested from a recent vacation, Gittens heaves a long sigh when she hears the name Steve Rosen. "Steve," she says now, "is one of those fanatic types. He sees only the things he wants to see and denies everything else. He put the lives of rabbits above the lives of people.

"These rabbits," she continues, "are not an endangered species. They're not native to Florida. They're a hazard to aviation. Steve does not understand this balance."

Rosen, though, was right about one thing. Gittens does not love rabbits. In fact, she doesn't even like them very much. "I had a rabbit bite me once when I was young," she says. "It was a pet rabbit, and we were watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie. It was the scariest part, and the rabbit just reached over and took a bite out of me."

Cindy Darrell, owner of Precious Puppies in Lauderdale Hills, watched the whole rabbit escapade unfold with disgust. For more than two years now, Darrell has been involved in litigation with Rosen over a toy Chihuahua she sold him and Zeppieri in July 2001. The media darling, she claimed in a lawsuit filed last year, nearly destroyed her business and caused her emotional anguish.

Darrell, a chain-smoking, slow-talking, thin woman with fluttery arm muscles and straight light-brown hair, refused to speak with New Times about the litigation. But she showed a reporter around her shop. She treats her dogs as she would her children, keeping them in cribs rather than in cages and referring to them in casual conversation as "my babies."

In July 2001, Rosen and Zeppieri came into her store and purchased the Chihuahua, which Zeppieri named Hope. But the name, it turned out, was overly optimistic. Three days after the sale, Hope became violently sick. Zeppieri hurried her to the Pet Emergency Center in Sunrise, where the dog was treated and released. Darrell claims in legal papers that she reimbursed Zeppieri for the expenses and volunteered to keep the dog in her nursery until she convalesced.

Rosen, though, blamed Darrell for the dog's sickness. A few days after the hospital visit, he e-mailed private investigator Barry Horvick. He wanted to find out if there were problems with the other dogs Darrell sold. He also asked Horvick to examine the pet-store owner's finances. "I can't wait to see what else we come up with on this Cindy woman," he wrote in the e-mail, which is buried in a federal court file.

On September 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks in Washington, D.C., and New York City, Rosen walked into Precious Puppies to collect the payments for the vet visit. In a police report, Darrell claimed that Rosen caused a disturbance in front of her customers, yelling that he would make her life miserable. When the detective contacted Rosen about the event, he didn't deny the occurrence. He told the officer that he knew "how to deal with these things."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help