BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Caleb Smith followed his bunny Snickers down the rabbit hole and ended up with a houseboat, a business and five islands.
Not bad for a 15-year-old.
“Snickers was what I called the perfect rabbit,” said Smith of the Dutch-breed rescue he had when he was 8. “He was a really calm, social rabbit. He thought he was a cat.”
When Snickers died, Smith went online shortly after Easter, looking for a replacement. What he found shocked him.
“There were over 300 of them. Some people were actually getting rid of endangered ones,” he said.
He bought four, the limit for a resident in the city of Bloomington. But the idea that people weren’t willing to commit to a rabbit’s 10-year life span really bothered him. People should know what they’re getting into, he said.
“I wanted to prevent the pet abandonment cycle,” he said.
He reached out to nearby folks with more land and found a family in Savage with a big, white barn that was willing to let him use the property to house his rabbits.
From bunnies to business
As the years went by, he began accumulating rabbits. He won’t say how many he’s got now, because the numbers are always changing, he said. But he has acquired 14 different breeds and said he may take 50 rabbits to show at the Minnesota State Fair.
In 2018 he estimated on his podcast that he goes through 20 40-pound bags of rabbit food every two weeks.
As the rabbits multiplied, Smith and his parents Stephanie and Ross, through Boy Scouts, neighbors, church and friends, gathered about 30 families into their circle to help them run the many nonprofit businesses that educate people about rabbits.
Smith’s ventures include:
- Bunny Boot Camp, a one-hour lesson on caring for rabbits
- Foster care, in which folks can take a bunny home for a two-month trial
- Little Vet classes for kids
- Comfort bunnies taken to those experiencing tragedies or illness
- Pasture Buddies, volunteer for an hour to help with bunny chores
- Rabbit Garden play date, where kids can play with the bunnies for an hour
- And he does birthday parties, baby showers, work meetings, etc.
Sharing the warm and fuzzies
Occasionally, he uses the bunnies for ministry, such as the time a homeless man in Philadelphia offered to pay him $1 to pet his rabbit.
“He said, ‘Your rabbits have done more for me in this 15 minutes than any human has done for me in the last year,'” Stephanie Smith said.
Or the time he and some friends took rabbits to Parkland, Fla., after the 2018 school shooting there, to offer as comfort animals.
“God tells you in your heart to go somewhere,” he said. “There’s always someone where God puts them in the right spot to interact with you.”
These enterprises all fall under the nonprofit “STEMbunnies” and are designed to educate. Prices are suggested on the website but are considered donations that go back into caring for the rabbits. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The Smiths do include art, but didn’t put it in the name. Why?
“Because STEAMbunnies does not sound good,” Smith said with a smirk.
Bunnies in boats
When Smith was 11, he was fascinated by the islands in the Mississippi River. As a Boy Scout, he joined Sea Scouts and this year is working on his Eagle Scout project — mapping the river for boaters in the Twin Cities area.
At age 14, he secured a deal with one island owner to lease time on the 22-acre property. He wanted to figure out if he could incorporate the islands into his bunny business. In 2017, he was a finalist in MN Cup, an entrepreneur competition for youth through the University of Minnesota. The $5,000 prize money went toward buying a houseboat to transport the bunnies to the island (and provide an indoor bathroom for visitors).
Last summer Smith purchased the boat in Winona and, going about 8 mph, he slowly made his way 100 miles up the Mississippi River to South St. Paul, docking every so often to drive back to Bloomington to finish his last week of eighth grade.
By fall 2018, the owner of the island offered to sell the property to Smith. Under the Peacebunny Island LLC, he secured a 30-year mortgage that he makes monthly payments on himself.
He named the island after one of the first four bunnies he bought after Snickers. That rabbit’s name was Paxton Peacebunny, a rare American Blue rabbit.
As Smith’s rabbits multiplied, so have his islands. Peacebunny Island, which is just south of the Wakota Bridge in Washington County, has two smaller islands yet to be named, although Smith is considering “Whiskers” for one of them.
A couple of snowbirds who’d been away while Smith was island hunting returned home to find his query about their two small islands. They wanted to sell, too, so Smith added them to the collection. Those islands, named Hope and Hoppiness, are in Dakota County near the Rock Island Swing Bridge in Inver Grove Heights.
The Peacebunny Island venture will be for profit. It needs to be, to pay for the islands and the boat, Smith said.
He hopes to create teaching adventures for school groups, scouts or families, bringing them and a handful of rabbits to frolic together in the island’s natural oasis for a few hours. These interactions will help train young bunnies to be comfort animals by getting them used to being handled.
Blue Ribbon bunnies
In the meantime, he’s got the Minnesota State Fair to think about.
He’ll enter Ambrosia, an Angora rabbit in the 4-H competition. But for the open competition, which does not require a participant to be a 4-H member, he will bring many more.
The best time to meet Smith and his rabbits is Saturday, Aug. 31, in the Sheep and Poultry Barn.