The Doctor and the Rabbits

Bill Cooke

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.

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.  

Perhaps his sometimes-kind, sometimes-rude, sometimes-bizarre behavior can be explained by something he said back in the restaurant. Pausing to take a bite out of his steamed vegetables, a meal befit for, well, rabbits, he became introspective. "Humans are the real nuisances in this world," he said.

When he was a student at Norland High School in Miami back in the '60s, Rosen was more apt to spend his free time studying magazines at the school library than throwing around footballs.

A withdrawn child, he always liked animals. He used to catch mice, study them, then release them back into the wild, he explains. He took up scuba diving largely as a way to study aquatic life. He had two dogs growing up, one named Rusty, the other Rainbow. He loved them both, he says, "but Rainbow is a dumb name."

After high school, for three years, Rosen attended the University of Miami, where, he says, he maintained a 3.85 GPA. To this day, he obsesses over a two-point true/false problem he missed on a political science final. That test, he says, kept him from amassing a perfect 4.0. For his senior year, Rosen transferred to Florida International University. His official reason for making the change was that he wanted to save money, but unofficially, Rosen says he simply did not want to fulfill Miami's foreign language requirement.

After FIU, Rosen attended Emory University's dental school. He received a dentistry license in 1977 and opened a practice in Plantation. Records from the Florida State Board of Dentistry show that Rosen's tenure as a dentist included some controversy. His first problem occurred in 1984 when the board sanctioned him for practicing without an active license. Rather than fight the citation, Rosen paid a $500 penalty fee.

Five years later, a former patient whose name isn't given in the records complained to the state that Rosen had performed root canal therapy on her without first discussing the procedure's implications. When an argument broke out, the dentist ordered the woman to leave his office. State records indicate Rosen's papers failed to "adequately document the examination results, treatment plans, and actual performance." The dentistry board declared that Rosen had not lived up to minimum-standard-of-care statutes and issued him a letter of guidance but did not levy a fine.

In 2002, Rosen was again sanctioned by the board, this time for failing to complete any of the 30 hours of continuing-education classes needed to renew his license. He was ordered to pay a $4,899 fine.

Rosen cut me off before I could ask him about these problems. He did explain, though, that his real passion is for inventions, not dentistry. He has come up with ideas for a posture straightener that buzzes when you start to slouch; an antikidnapping belt that emits a signal so parents can track down lost or kidnapped children; and a flexible screwdriver that reaches into corners.

His most successful invention is the hair-straightening solution made by Tend Skin. It dates to 1985, when one of his patients, a black man, walked in one day for a root canal, Rosen says. Like many African-Americans, the man had a problem with ingrown hairs causing infections. But after the operation, the patient told Rosen that his skin problem had suddenly cleared up. This piqued the dentist's interest. He started researching the patient's medical history and, after eliminating other sources, concluded that it was actually the aspirin in percodan, a drug Rosen had prescribed for pains that caused the man's skin to clear. Aspirin, he discovered, squeezes follicles and causes hair to straighten.

Once he had isolated the agent, Rosen needed a guide to the cosmetics industry and a partner to help develop the product. He found both in James Agard, a chemist who had been let go from his position as vice president of manufacturing at Atlanta-based M&M Products Co. In the '80s, the company had been one of the largest hair-product manufacturers for black males in the country.

Rosen, who had done business with M&M, could not have known at the time, during the late '80s, that Agard was going through one of the roughest periods in his life. Unable to find another job in Georgia and hurting for cash, he had reluctantly accepted a position in Chicago. Separated from his family, he was restless and miserable.  

When Rosen conjured up visions of money and glory, Agard contends, he bit. The two worked for a year developing a formula by fooling around with different chemical mixtures. Strangely, though, Agard says, during the entire process, he never met the dentist face to face. Rosen preferred to conduct business over the phone, the Atlanta chemist contends. The two communicated every few weeks, and after about a year of work, they finally hit upon a recipe.

It was around that time, Agard recalls, that Rosen started getting chilly, not returning phone calls, and acting "like a loose cannon." Looking back, Agard says, there were lots of subtle signs that Rosen was not the ideal business partner, but the chemist chalked them up to character quirks. "He was always a little off-the-wall, but he was always saying, 'No, no, it's the result of this crazy girlfriend' he has." Agard pauses for a second. "I wonder if he even had a girlfriend." (I didn't have a chance to ask Rosen about his relationship with the chemist.)

But the last time Agard called Rosen, in 1992, there was no talk about girlfriends. Instead, Rosen told the Georgia native what he already suspected: The dentist was not interested in continuing the partnership.

"That's fine, then," Agard remembers saying. "I'll just work on the solution myself."

That's when Rosen turned nasty, Agard contends, claiming the aspirin-based solution was his invention and his alone. He made a vague threat to Agard, snarling that "he'd see me in Atlanta," the chemist adds.

Rosen filed suit in 1997 to stop Agard from continuing work on the product. During discovery, the chemist learned from his attorneys that Rosen had hired a private investigator to estimate his financial assets.

"Rosen," Agard says, "knew for a fact that I was in tough financial straits. He thought if this stays in court, I wouldn't be able to pay my lawyers and he'd win by default."

And Agard had his doubts too. He thought, "Jesus can I afford this? We keep going to court, and I have no proverbial pot to piss in."

But then, he decided "Screw it... I'm a 220-pound black man. I am in the right. I'll get through the thousands of dollars in lawyer fees."

When the case closed in 2000, the court ruled that Agard, as a co-inventor of the formula, could continue to sell and manufacture the product. Back in Georgia, a jubilant Agard opened his own retail skin-care company, AJA Inc. Rosen started his firm, Tend Skin, in 1996. Though both companies use the same aspirin-based formula, AJA does not compete with Tend Skin, Agard says, because Rosen targets the general market while he aims for the ethnic one.

Tend Skin's headquarters are tucked away in a small warehouse located off a hard-to-find dirt road in Davie. Once inside, one needs to tread carefully. The bare floor -- the part not covered by newspaper, that is -- is slippery and worn. There are animal droppings strewn about, and one must watch out for miniature claws and little furry creatures. At any one time, the dank office may be sheltering a dog, a hamster, a bird, and a cat. This is not the calm before the storm. This is the storm.

Rosen's personal office is not much better. It's disheveled and disorganized. His desk chair, which looks as if it were once a throne-like monument, now appears to have been through a shredder a few times. On his desk, papers are stacked willy-nilly, their edges yellowing, the top sheets threatening to tip over. The walls have a grayish tint, and the desk is battered.

But the most noticeable thing in the room is not the furnishing; it's the bird. Bella, Rosen's white-tailed cockatoo, dominates the place. She puffs her chest, struts her feathers, and claims her place on the dentist's arm. She also bites. And we're not just talking about an innocent little love peck either. When the bird flies off Rosen, lands on my shoulder, and gnaws at the inside of my arm, Rosen laughs. "She's protecting me," he says. "Aren't you, Bella?" Then he kisses the bird's head.

Bella squawks in response.

Rosen's office is run by a team that Rosen says he plucked from jobs as check-out girls, salespeople, and bank tellers. He boosted their salaries and benefits. Loyalty, he adds, is important.

But one employee apparently wasn't faithful, at least in Rosen's view. Her name was Marisa Zeppieri. She was a part-time student when she started work at Tend Skin in 1997.  

Neither Zeppieri nor Rosen would comment on their relationship to New Times, but, according to Lori Ann Nicolini, another former Tend Skin employee, the pair was friendly at first. They'd hang out, see movies, and attend trade shows together. Sometimes, they'd go with Alan Pokotilow, Rosen's close friend and former employee. But it became increasingly clear to Nicolini that Rosen, who has never married, had a crush on Zeppieri that some thought bordered on obsession.

It didn't help matters that the then-22 year-old liked to strut around the office in teeny cute tanks, sans bra, and butt-clinging jeans, Nicolini says. Indeed, the underdressed woman "appeared to lead Rosen around like a carrot," Bloch, the comptroller, said in a sworn statement last January.

Both Bloch and Nicolini contend that Rosen treated Zeppieri better than other employees. He paid for her lunches, offered to help finance her college tuition, chauffeured her around the set of Lethal Weapon 4 in California, and lent her money for a dog. Although Zeppieri accepted his offers, she claims in multiple court documents that she did not think of Rosen romantically.

Indeed, in October 2001, she requested a restraining order against the doctor. "Steven Rosen has continually made sexual remarks to me for the past several months," she wrote. "In fear of losing my job, I have said nothing. When he realized I was not interested, he made it a point to make my life miserable." A judge denied her first request, but a later one was accepted.

According to Zeppieri's written account of the event, Rosen started going crazy when she did not return his affection. Zeppieri claims the dentist started moping around the office, calling her a "cunt" and a "bitch" in front of her coworkers. "My fellow workers began telling me that [Rosen] would ask questions on a daily basis of where I was, who I was dating, what that person did," she recalled. "I was told that he would *69 [call back] my phone calls and if the caller was a man... would write the [number] down. He asked me numerous times in front of co-workers to go on a cruise with him, even after continually being told no."

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."

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.

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.

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."

Like much else related to Rosen, the matter is now in litigation. When Darrell learned that Rosen had contacted a private investigator to delve through her personal finances, she filed suit against the dentist, who, of course, maintains that he did nothing wrong.

Indeed, Rosen lawyer Anthony Pelle has this to say about his client: "He's very self-righteous and passionate about things he believes in. As a result of that, he finds himself involved in a lot of conflicts... One client of mine says that the best luxury of having money is the ability to stand on your principles. And what Steve Rosen does, which most of us can't afford to do, is to fight every battle he'd like."

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