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Airport rabbits face firing squad

The biggest problem with the blacktail rabbits at Miami International Airport is that they have attracted a bad crowd.

Frequently run over by aircraft, the rabbits become targets for turkey vultures hovering above the runway.

That's the problem. The past two years, birds have slammed into airplanes more than two dozen times, raising safety concerns. Since mid April, animal lovers have trapped 320 rabbits, but planes still have been hit six times.

Now, the guns are coming out.

A shooter from the U.S. Department of Agriculture this week will begin using pellet guns to kill the rabbits.

"We've tried to be caring about this situation. We care about animals, we care about these rabbits. But it's time now to bring this process to a close," said Marc Henderson, a spokesman for the airport.

The fight over the rabbits may ultimately be headed to a federal courtroom.

Miami International Airport is under orders from the Federal Aviation Administration to get rid of the rabbits. The FAA fears the buzzards could get sucked into airplane engines and cause accidents.

Though the rabbits have been at Miami's airport for some 27 years, they are not indigenous to Florida. So, airport officials can't simply catch them and move them to a preserve or to the Everglades. They would have to be shipped to their native Texas.

Earlier this year, airport officials came up with a plan to shoot them.

Dr. Stephen Rosen, a former dentist from Fort Lauderdale who became rich by accidentally creating a skin care product that treats razor bumps and ingrown hair, read about it and decided "enough was enough."

The multimillionaire has spent $50,000 so far to save 320 rabbits.

For starters, he paid $16,000 to ship 100 traps that are now set up across the airport.

He paid a Homestead veterinarian $75 per rabbit to inspect them, repair broken legs, treat infected eyes and conduct surgery for any number of ailments.

He paid $127 per rabbit to have them flown to a wildlife sanctuary in Texas.

Now he has hired a lawyer and says he's willing to pay the estimated $20,000 it might cost to fight airport officials and save the remaining rabbits.

Rosen's lawyer, Anthony Pelle of Carlton Fields in Miami, said unless plans to shoot the rabbits are scrapped, he will file an injunction today seeking to stop agents with the U.S. Department of Agriculture from shooting them.

"We're trying to convince them that killing the rabbits is not the best solution," Pelle said. "The U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife services is empowered to remove a species when they create a safety risk, but killing the animal is the method of last resort. In the last 12 weeks, we've successfully captured and relocated over 300 rabbits to Texas. To kill the remaining few is unnecessary."

Airport officials have granted the rabbits several stays, allowing Rosen's trapper to catch hundreds over the past three months.

But the airport, which averages 1,200 flights a day and 30-million passengers a year, will begin getting rid of the rabbits today or Friday, Henderson said.

Tampa International Airport also has rabbits, but it is not overrun by them and has no plans to remove them, said Brenda Geoghagan, a spokesperson for that airport.

A couple of years ago, a pack of coyotes caused problems at Tampa's airport, but airport officials removed them, she said.

Right now, Tampa's biggest problem apparently is a few turtles on the runways. To solve the problem, airport workers have moved them to other areas of the 3,600-acre airport.

Meanwhile at Miami's airport, Rosen's trapper, Todd Hardwick, said he has been granted permission to catch the rabbits even while the Department of Agriculture agents try to shoot them. Hardwick estimates there are only 25 to 50 rabbits left at the airport.

Rosen said he will pay whatever it takes to save those remaining rabbits. He said he doesn't have a particular affinity for rabbits; he just cares about animals and is a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"It's just when you start looking at it, it's just outrageous to kill animals that can be trapped," he said.

Hardwick, the trapper, said Rosen has never been high-profile in the animal rights groups, but he's come through for the rabbits.

"I"m still trying to figure him out," Hardwick said. "He came in off the radar screen completely. But so far he's been true to his word. I'm tired of hearing people moan and groan but then they never do anything about it. He actually did something about it. He opened his wallet and spent a lot of money to save those bunnies, which actually are hares."

Rosen will likely not fade back into obscurity after the rabbit fight is over. Next, he's doing whales. He said he plans to enter the battle to free Lolita, a killer whale now at the Miami Seaquarium, and return her to her native Puget Sound in Washington.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.