Caleb Smith runs Peacebunny Island, a non-profit that raises rescue rabbits and pairs them with people who need them.
Posted in , Aug 25, 2021
The sun peeks over the treetops, casting a glow inside Caleb Smith’s tent at 6:30 in the morning. The Mississippi River gently laps against the houseboat moored on the sandy bank near the site where he and his friends like to camp out when the weather is nice. A gentle nudge from the edge of his sleeping bag lets the 16-year-old Eagle Scout know he isn’t the only one awake.
“Morning, Huck,” he says, stroking the soft blue-gray Flemish rabbit emerging from where he had burrowed. Huckleberry’s nose twitches as he stretches. Caleb pulls on a hooded sweatshirt over his Peacebunny Island T-shirt.
The large bunny nudges his nose under the teen’s arm.
“I know, buddy. Big day ahead. The start of another Best Summer Ever.”
Another ball of fur hops out from behind Caleb’s backpack, a rescued dwarf Hotot rabbit.
“Good morning, Tator Tot.”
Caleb unzips his tent and breathes in the brisk morning air. The sand is cool on his bare feet as he walks to the houseboat, carrying his bedding under one arm, his backpack slung over his shoulder. The two bunnies nibble on tender shoots that cover the knoll. Of all the bunnies that live at Peacebunny Cottage—situated on a sprawling farm just outside of Minneapolis—Tator Tot and Huck love coming out here to Peacebunny Island the most. The private 22-acre island nestled in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, just south of Saint Paul, belongs to Caleb, who uses the sustainable sanctuary to train comfort rabbits.
When Caleb was eight, he adopted his first bunny, Snickers, an older Dutch rabbit. They were inseparable. But Snickers died less than a year later, and Caleb was heartbroken. He eventually went online looking for another rabbit and was shocked to see hundreds available, abandoned after Easter. He put on his church suit and made a presentation to his parents about rescuing more rabbits. “It really bothered me that people couldn’t commit to a rabbit’s 10-year life span,” he says. “So I took in as many as I could.” There wasn’t room at his family’s house in the suburbs for them all. Luckily, a farm family nearby let Caleb keep his rabbits in their barn, now known as Peacebunny Cottage.
By the time he was 11, Caleb knew he wanted his rabbits to not only live out their lives in a happy place but also help others. He spent the next few years taking boating lessons and investing money he’d won in an entrepreneurship contest to buy a houseboat and several canoes. At 14, he discovered an uninhabited island on the Mississippi and convinced the owners to let him camp there for a few months so he could see how his bunnies liked roaming the land. It was the perfect spot to train comfort rabbits—quiet, safe, free of land predators. After securing an investor to help him buy the island, Caleb needed to raise funds for the rabbits’ care plus a mortgage, so the Peacebunny Foundation began to sell rabbit merchandise, request donations and host educational activities at the cottage. One hundred percent of the 2021 royalties from his memoir, Peacebunny Island: The Extraordinary Journey of a Boy and His Comfort Rabbits, and How They’re Teaching Us About Hope and Kindness, made the plan sustainable.
Now Caleb’s rabbits are fostered for short stays by people who need some extra love; many are families with children on the autism spectrum or with other health challenges. Peacebunny Units visit senior centers, provide the ministry of presence at children’s memorials, bring comfort to survivors of school violence. “They are God’s rabbits,” he says. “As their guardian, I believe he nudges me where to bring them.”
Other programs Caleb offers include Little Vet classes for kids; Pasture Buddies, where people can volunteer to watch over bunnies; Rabbit Garden Play Date, which is exactly what it sounds like; and Bunny Boot Camp, training on caring for rabbits (find out more at peacebunnyisland.com). These activities happen at the cottage, where all the rabbits live. Caleb and his team use the houseboat to take rabbits to Peacebunny Island, where they’re trained to sit calmly with people, be petted and snuggled, and not wander off. Sometimes Scout troops will visit the island to watch the rabbits. It’s also a great place for Caleb to just get away and take in the beauty of the river.
Jacob, one of his fellow Eagle Scouts, emerges from his tent, making sure the embers of last night’s campfire are completely out. Their pal Kaden packs up the hammocks.
Spotting his mom Stephanie’s bright orange canoe in the distance, Caleb knows they have less than 30 minutes to finish up. The boys have permits to drive the houseboat, but they still need an adult on board.
By 9:30 A.M. the boat is back at the marina where it’s kept.
“Hi, Peacebunnies!” comes a young girl’s voice from near the dock. She runs over and squeals with delight, bending down to nuzzle Huck with her nose. “Who is the cutest bunny ever?”
“We have a Bunny Boot Camp this afternoon,” Stephanie tells her. “We’d love to see your family at the cottage.”
They make a pit stop at home, where Caleb showers and changes out of his clothes. It was nice to spend the first few days of summer on the island, but he has work to do.
With a picnic lunch—and carrots for Huck and Tator Tot—in the car, they head to the farm, where Caleb’s dad is already tending to the rabbits in Peacebunny Cottage. On the 20-minute ride, Caleb looks over the week’s schedule. “Five day cares, two libraries, a team to the veterans home, a birthday party, plus the senior home crew and the detention center. Fence repair and science camp.”
Soon visitors arrive at Peacebunny Cottage, a foster family ready to take their rabbit home, along with a few weeks’ supply of food.
“I’m excited you get to help care for this furry friend over the full two months,” Caleb says to the family’s son, who’s eight, the same age he was when he got Snickers.
When Bunny Boot Camp is over, Caleb takes a break in the hammock. Oreo, a Mini Rex with velvety fur, stretches out on top of him. Soon family and friends will be arriving for Pasture Buddies, held every Sunday evening. Dozens of bunnies munch on clover and wildflowers in the grassy fields while Caleb and his friends play catch. Other guests enjoy the warm glow of the sunset while one of them plays the guitar. After the bunnies are returned inside, guests are invited to gather around the firepits for a Bible devotion, singing and sharing.
As dusk falls, Caleb says goodnight to the bunnies.
“It is a lot of work,” says Caleb, who still can’t believe he’s guardian to hundreds of rabbits. “But bunnies bring so much joy into the lives of others—and into mine as well.”
Huckleberry, always near Caleb, twitches his ears one way, then another. He agrees wholeheartedly.
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