Dedicated Teenage Entrepreneur Trains Bunnies for Comfort and Connection
It all begins with the power of presence. A quiet room, the gentle touch of silky fur, a soothing circle of warmth, perhaps a little bonk of a bunny's nose against your thumb. "The rabbits don't judge anyone as they listen to secrets. They're completely focused and share love in a way that transcends words," Caleb Smith says.
Smith, an Eagle Scout who calls himself a 'bunny guardian,' was looking for a furever pet rabbit when he discovered more than 300 rabbits being rehomed on Craigslist—right after Easter. "I wanted to stop the pet abandonment cycle, and knew I couldn't save all these rabbits," Smith tells Daily Paws. "But figured we could focus on education and helping families make informed decisions with more fair expectations."
He was 7 then. He's 16 now, and the founder and CEO—yes, you read that right!—of the thriving Peacebunny Island, Inc. and the Peacebunny Island Foundation. Based in Newport, Minn., Smith created a multi-faceted rabbit care empire. It includes a sanctuary farm to raise rare heritage breeds outlined by the Livestock Conservancy; a preschool- and student-based education program; and a service-learning organization, which allows other bunny guardians to share comfort rabbits for support during times of loneliness, stress, health challenges, tragedy, and grief.
The Business of Bunnies
"There are many experts who have studied animal-assisted activities, especially with dogs and horses," Smith says. "My education started with spending bulk, unhurried time with the rabbits and learning from them, then reading and meeting with professionals in this field. Eventually, we brought in expert advisors for our organization to make logistics more streamlined."
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He adds that it was essential for volunteer bunny guardians and everyone involved in both organizations to follow the stringent rules, regulations, and statutes regarding animal welfare, public health, and professional health services.
Smith has as much of a natural instinct for understanding business as he does with Angoras, American Chinchillas, American blues and whites, and the 13 other rare pedigreed rabbit breeds on the farm. He was only 8 years old when he made a formal presentation to his parents about his idea for rescuing abandoned bunnies and providing better rabbit welfare education.
He continued to earn money for his work through speaking engagements and entrepreneurial pitch meetings to sustain the organizations' growth and outlines this non-traditional journey in his new book, released in March.
Is Peacebunny Island real? Absolutely! In 2018, Smith purchased (with a little co-sign help from mom and dad) a private, 22-acre island sanctuary in the Upper Mississippi River. The bunnies aren't there full time, though. They primarily live in Peacebunny Cottage (the farm), and travel back and forth with youth guardians who are members of the service-learning organization. The island is like a cottontail summer camp.
Benefits of Bunny Love
Smith is quick to point out that he and his team don't 'train' the bunnies to do anything they don't want to do. "It must be good for them, first and foremost. We have committed to a forever home with us, regardless of their willingness to go to events," he says. "I think allowing them the freedom to choose when to go and when they'd like a break or to just be done is key to building their trust."
He and the other bunny guardians spend a lot of time learning about each animal's different personalities. "Those who seem to volunteer to go with us are exposed to different kinds of touch in a variety of settings, from senior homes and hospice sites to preschools and community festivals, and during moments of trauma and grief," Smith says. "We take note where they seem to open up and seem most engaged and content." In the end, it's a rabbit's choice to participate, which he feels makes it all the more special.
Smith believes the bunny love individuals receive is often one small thing to help mend a broken heart. "As they begin asking questions of our volunteers, people begin to open up, interacting with others who are sharing this moment," he says. "The softness of [the bunnies'] fur just seems to help melt the barriers around a person's heart. A rabbit provides a moment of connection, and perhaps that leads to their first smile since the trauma, or a spontaneous laugh that hasn't come out in a really long time."
He says he's not trying to convince anyone to get a rabbit, but hopes we can all take time to understand these amazing furry friends a little better. It's also his wish for people to receive a message of hope from Peacebunny Island's mission. "If everyone followed those inner nudges and chose to stop and help, to support the things that make their heart sing, the world would be a much kinder place."
Not everyone will be able to travel to Peacebunny Island, Smith says. "But perhaps just the fact that it exists is enough to bring a smile, a glimmer of hope, and positivity." We are so up for that! So for a quick virtual visit, enjoy this relaxing sunset bunny bath.