Published Sunday, February 25, 2001, in the Miami Herald
BY WILLIAM YARDLEY
BELLE GLADE -- Tarence Oliver knows sugarcane will erupt into a field of fire every winter. He knows smoke will fill the sky as growers burn the green foliage off the cane to prepare for harvest.
And because he knows this, Oliver, 24, knows one more thing, something strange and mysterious, an improbable ritual unique in this sugar sanctuary south of Lake Okeechobee that few outsiders encounter.
He knows when the rabbits will run.
Ready with a gun or a stick or a dog or bare hands, Oliver and many others younger and older will be there in the field for the ``rundown,'' meeting them as they flee the flames, muck rabbits and cottontails safely sheltered in the cane but helpless outside it.
Most of what the hunters catch they will sell, for as little as $2 on a corner in Belle Glade or, if they make the trip to Miami or Fort Lauderdale, as much as $5 for a fine fat cottontail. The rest they fry or grill or add to soup or stew.
``We've been doing this for so many years,'' Oliver said.
But now, just as cane burning is reaching its seasonal peak, just as rabbit hunting is at its best, an unwelcome spotlight is shining on the Big Sugar companies and the traditions of the small towns sitting between the levee of Lake Okeechobee and more than 400,000 acres of cane fields at its southern edge.
The aggressive animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is demanding a boycott of U.S. Sugar, one of the largest growers in the region, accusing the company of cruelty to animals after a man passing through reported seeing bunnies burning as they fled a field in neighboring South Bay, where the company is headquartered.
While a boycott ultimately may have little impact on sugar sales, it is drawing attention to a peculiar collision of cultures, one where people who have been the bedrock of the local workforce created a tradition of rabbit hunting in the cane fields that has endured for as long as the growers have been burning cane.
``It's the whole culture of the people out there,'' said Lt. John Reed, a wildlife officer for the state Fish and Wildlife Commission who monitors hunting in the area. ``Those are just things they've been doing for years.''
Locals even boast that the quickness required for rabbit-catching is why the area has produced so many top athletes, along with multiple state high school football championships in recent years.
``That's how we got all our speed,'' said Richard ``Flex'' Johnson, 23, a former running back at Glades Central High School.
Hunting any kind of rabbit without a license is illegal in Florida, but Reed said he chooses his battles. ``It's been going on for 100 years, and we're not going to bust a 13-year-old kid,'' Reed said. ``If we catch them selling it, that's a different ballgame.''
And that is why the ``rabbit man'' will not give his name as he lifts another mottled muck rabbit from a pile of dozens to the nail hammered head-high into the utility pole outside his front door.
Locals say the rabbit man finds rabbits year-round, whether the cane is burning or not. The rabbit man himself says very little, only that he is 69 and retired from the cane fields.
He points to his young partner working one pole over.
``He's the rabbit man, too.''
Hunting dogs are collapsed around them. Kids on bikes coast by. A woman's dress sails on a clothesline next door. On the corner, they drink beer before noon. Everywhere, the air weighs with the sweetness of cane being refined at the Glades Sugar House.
The rabbit man turns the rabbit downside up, pressing the flesh of one foot through the nailhead, so the rabbit hangs from it. He cuts from the ankle, peeling the skin in a whole piece down the length of its body and away, like pulling a sweater over a child's head.
He is careful to leave the fur on at least one foot.
``So they'll know it ain't no cat.''
Rabbit is a delicacy for some, particularly cottontail.
``When you clean a cottontail rabbit, you've got to keep the tail on,'' said Oliver, who works at a produce packing house. ``A cottontail is like gold.''
But while rabbit is a staple on some dinner tables, it is unimaginable on others.
``You've got to look pretty closely to tell it's a rabbit and not a rat,'' said Barbara Miedema, vice president for communications at the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida in Belle Glade.
``They're not like Peter Cottontail.''
Short-eared muck rabbits are most common in the cane, and they likely are what Robert Powell saw running from a burning field when he stopped in South Bay on his way from New Jersey to Key West on Feb. 15.
``I couldn't believe it,'' Powell told The Key West Citizen. ``The sky was filled with turkey buzzards swooping down and feeding on them while they were smoldering. They were squealing in pain and jumping into water.''
Powell said that he stopped and tried to save some -- he said he saw hundreds -- but that he had to put most out of their misery. He carried one all the way to a Key West animal hospital, where it eventually died.
Within a week, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals announced its boycott, focusing on the growers, not the rabbit hunters.
``We're asking [growers] to find an alternative to burning,'' said wildlife biologist Stephanie Boyles. ``Why would I want to isolate [local rabbit hunters] when there are people all over the country who kill rabbits?''
U.S. Sugar is not bending. The company argues that its cycle of burning improves the habitat and that the noise and smoke give bunnies plenty of warning to get out.
They have questioned whether Powell really saw what he said he did. ``While we regret that any creature might be harmed, we believe that recent reports have been greatly exaggerated,'' the company said in a prepared statement.
Regardless of the boycott, the rabbit men will find plenty of customers in Belle Glade in the evenings, and perhaps in Miami or Fort Lauderdale.
But as the younger man pulls out innards and slices off a head, then reaches to rinse his hands in a bucket of water as a little girl pedals past, it is easy to forget, for a moment, that roads connect Belle Glade to anywhere.
``This has been going on for years and years, millions and millions of rabbits,'' he says. ``And all of a sudden, somebody wants to say something.''
Published Monday, February 26, 2001, in the Washington Post
BUCHAREST, Romania -- Mayors like to declare war. On pigeons in London. On jaywalkers in New York. And, now, on man's best friend in Bucharest.
About 300,000 dogs run loose in this capital of 2.2 million people. They lounge outside the major landmarks, including the entrances to the parliament building. They encircle many of the city's apartment complexes. And when they rouse themselves and move in barking packs, they are capable of terrorizing even Dr. Doolittle.
Each year, 23,000 residents are attacked and bitten by dogs, according to Bucharest's rabies center.
So the city's crusading mayor, Traian Basescu, has launched a crackdown that could lead to the extermination of most of the roving animals.
Dog lovers, including French animal rights activist and former movie star Brigitte Bardot, have condemned the plan. Recently hundreds of Bucharest dog owners, pets in tow, took to the streets to protest the planned killing.
"In my eyes, Bucharest is a symbol of courage and generosity," Bardot, who has visited here to defend the dogs, said in a recent statement. "I don't want it to become a symbol of death and shame."
Basescu isn't budging. On Thursday, he plans to send a legion of dogcatchers into the streets to begin rounding up the strays in an operation that is likely to last months because of the numbers involved. Dogs will be held for 10 days, and if no one claims them, they will be put down. Those that are claimed will be sterilized, deloused and turned over to their owners, but only if the owners accept full responsibility for the animal.
"There is no other solution," said Basescu, who has budgeted $17.5 million for the operation. "A dog must be treated like a child. Somebody has to take responsibility to feed it, to take care of it, to vaccinate it, but also to give it a home."
Bucharest's dogs, like so many of Romania's problems, are a legacy of communism. Nicolae Ceausescu, the dictator who was executed in 1989 following a popular uprising, began to clear large tracts of downtown in the early 1970s to make way for his gargantuan palace.
As homeowners were forcibly moved into cramped apartments in new high-rises, hundreds abandoned their dogs or let them live on the streets.
Unsterilized, the dogs did as dogs do, and the population exploded. Their numbers now increase by 15 percent annually, city officials estimate.
"I'm afraid of rabies, and if there's one case among these dogs, it's a health bomb," said Liviu Harbuz, veterinary adviser to both the mayor and Romania's prime minister. To date, no rabid dogs have been detected in Bucharest.
Harbuz said that no European city, including any in Bardot's France, tolerates stray dogs. He said he cannot understand why the dog lovers are so opposed to the mayor's plans, which will eventually be expanded to deal with the 2 million stray dogs in all of Romania. Each year, nearly 100,000 Romanians are attacked by strays, Harbuz said, and in a small percentage of cases require surgery. He said there have been no deaths as a result of dog attacks.
"I was trained by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in England," Harbuz said plaintively, "but it's like I'm in the middle of a war here. I don't hate animals."
The Romanian political elite, who have to step over strays to enter parliament, are firmly behind the mayor. Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said the dog-clearance is essential to civilize the city. "The French cannot say about Bucharest that it is a dirty city and then have Brigitte Bardot come here and defend the homeless dogs," said Nastase, according to the independent news agency Mediafax.
The prime minister acknowledged, however, that the process of "civilizing" Bucharest will have to include finding shelter for several thousand homeless children who live in the streets -- another of its grave social ills.
Animal rights activists argue that the dog problem is a human creation that obliges city authorities to come up with a solution that doesn't involve mass slaughter. Four Paws, a local group working with the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, said the dogs should be sterilized and then returned to the streets.
"In a few years, they will die anyway," said Anca Tomescu, manager of the Four Paws stray project. "The city had done nothing for years and just like that it wants to kill the dogs."
Noting that hundreds turned out for the recent demonstration against the mayor's plans, Tomescu said that "in Bucharest, people love dogs." Although dogs rummage for food in garbage, they also are fed by some residents. Protests against a 1998 plan to kill the dogs effectively canceled it.
But today the mayor, according to one newspaper poll, finds that 70 percent of the city is behind his project. In the White Swamp neighborhood in the eastern section of Bucharest, it is not difficult to see why.
Around apartment building after apartment building, stray dogs loll in the winter sun and pedestrians skirt them gingerly. Periodically, when another dog arrives or something disturbs them, the dogs jump up and start barking. At night, residents say, they howl like wolves.
"Kill them all," said Alexandra Staniov, a White Swamp resident. "It's outrageous to be afraid to walk out of your own home."
Recently, when Staniov, 76, went shopping, she was set upon by three dogs, one of which bit her on the arm, which still bears the puncture marks. Staniov's son and grandson also have been bitten. And as she talked, her neighbors came up, lifting their pants legs and pulling back their sleeves to show more bite marks.
"Everybody has been bitten," said Virginia Branzoiv, 46. "We can't go on living like this."