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The Doctor and the Rabbits

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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.

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Rebecca Meiser

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