TAMPA — In 2000 an old man named Peter bought a rabbit and named her Bitsy. After a while, she looked lonely. He bought her a girlfriend, Honey.
Honey turned out to be Harry.
After six months, he had 17 rabbits behind his house in Temple Terrace. He tried to separate them by gender, but they dug under the fence.
Code enforcement griped about bunnies in the yard. He moved them inside, getting rid of carpet and furniture. He thought about neutering them, but the choice was this: Buy his mother's medicine or neuter the bunnies. Mom won.
So each day, Peter Bordwell, now 68, got up at 5:30 a.m. to buy produce and spent the day chopping fresh vegetables for bunnies and cleaning their cages.
He dreamed of a better place for his bunnies. But then he got sick and required surgery, and his bunny cages went untended.
On Wednesday, authorities came and took away his bunnies — all 156 of them — and his three kittens.
Animal control officers saw several inches of fecal matter and walls that had been chewed through. Some rabbits had long nails and thin coats. Two had to be euthanized, said Marti Ryan, a spokeswoman for Hillsborough County Animal Control.
"You're looking at a classic hoarder right now," Ryan said.
They told him a bunny rescue group would step in. But he worries his pets will become rabbit stew. No one loved him like his bunnies, he said.
Bordwell even told his brother that when the time came, he wanted to be buried with his bunnies' ashes: Bitsy, who lived to be 6 years and 8 months; Harry, who died at 7 years and 3 months; and three others, Taffy, Sunshine and Little Guy; and those of his mutt Topples, who had lived to be 15 years and 2 months.
"They make no demands, they ask no questions. They simply want to be loved for a handful of food," Bordwell said tearfully amid empty wire cages. "There was no one to love in my life. They were my kids."
Bordwell, called "the Bunny Man" or "Rabbit Man," recalled his life, which, until Wednesday, had consisted of the same routine: picking up 50 pounds of wilted kale, carrots and broccoli every day from the Produce Exchange, some of it free, some discounted; cleaning litter boxes; sweeping and mopping concrete floors with bleach; devoting four hours a night between 50 cages, feeding, petting and talking to bunnies with names like Scooter, Spot, Angel and Precious.
He was also caring for his mother, Edna Bordwell, who took medication for osteoporosis, high blood pressure and swollen limbs.
She told her son: "God gives us everything that we need in this life, but he only lets us borrow that which we love." Edna Bordwell died in 2006 at 103, leaving Peter and his rabbits.
In November 2007, he purchased 1.3 acres of land in Plant City just for his bunnies. He dreamed of a compound where they could roam freely, but separated by his-and-hers areas.
He hired a company and had plans drawn up. He needed to come up with $4,000. But no one wanted to hire this 68-year-old part-time security guard. He couldn't pay for the fencing.
Last year, the pain came. It lasted 21/2 months before a fourth doctor diagnosed him with hernias.
He had surgery in October, and returned home to a huge mess.
"I've never been able to find the time to make up for those 21/2 months," he said.
He looked around his dilapidated house and the deplorable conditions, and begged for work.
"It was a race to get that fencing in place," he said. But on Wednesday, after someone complained, his time was up.
With 160 misdemeanor charges of improper confinement of animals against him, he thought of his property in Plant City and wept.
"All I wanted was for them to live out their lives and be happy and die in old age," he said. "And I was going to follow them."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or firstname.lastname@example.org.