Bunnies As 'Comfort Animals': Meet the 16-Year-Old Boy Training Rabbits At His Island Sanctuary
Caleb Smith tells PEOPLE that rabbits help trauma survivors through their "power of presence."
Shortly after the high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, teen volunteer Caleb Smith and his four bunnies — Paxton, Fudge, Hobo, and Daisy — visited a group of children who were related to one of the 14 students killed in the tragedy.
The victim's aunt had invited the Minnesota native, who trains his bunnies to be "comfort animals," to meet with the children in a hotel conference room ahead of a memorial service for their relative. The woman knew to reach out to Smith because she had seen him and the bunnies waiting patiently outside other funerals and memorial services, so the furry creatures could comfort mourners as they passed by. As her relatives petted and played with the rabbits, one of the girls asked Smith where the bunnies came from.
"From Peacebunny Cottage," Smith, now 16, recalls telling her in his memoir, Peacebunny Island. "Someday I hope to have an island for the bunnies."
"I want to go there," she told him.
"Even if you never get to come to Minnesota, you can always look at rabbits as a reminder that you are loved," Smith said.
Not only was the teenager able to help the grieving child, but his dream also came true. A year later, Smith acquired the first of the five islands that make up his sanctuary on the Mississippi River, Peacebunny Island. Here, he cares for 16 breeds of rabbits, some of the bunnies he trains to be therapy animals. Smith raised funds for the downpayment on the property, and now his mortgage is paid through donations and events — his parents helped him navigate the complicated logistics.
The bunnies help people who are suffering through their "power of presence," Smith tells PEOPLE in this week's issue.
"It's this precious time where they can have a bunny on their lap," he explains. "You can see people that are smiling, possibly for the first time, since the tragedy. [It's great to] see that people can laugh again and they can share joy again."
Smith is just old enough to drive, but he's been building up to his rabbit island oasis for years. He was 8 years old when he put on a suit and pitched his bunny-saving operation to his parents à la Shark Tank after losing his first bunny Snickers, an older Dutch rabbit he had found on Craigslist.
Since then, Smith has been running the fostering system he created, Peacebunny Island Inc., which saves hundreds of bunnies from the pet abandonment cycle, including six endangered breeds. Peacebunny's goal is to save rabbits through educational programs — and to help their human companions. Smith and Peacebunny volunteers take rabbits to schools, birthday parties, and senior centers to teach people about bunnies and bring them joy.
The idea to help trauma survivors came about after Smith volunteered with his parents, both former disaster relief volunteers, in Newtown, Conn. after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
"I saw the comfort dogs in action there," Smith remembers, "and I thought, 'My rabbits can do that!' "
Now he has the perfect space to train them. When Smith and volunteers bring the bunnies to the islands, their main goal is to get the fluffy herbivores comfortable with a human's touch. It requires time, patience, and cuddles.
"You can litter-box train them, like a cat," he says. "We train them to do obstacle courses."
While supporting trauma survivors is emotionally trying, it's worth it for the Smith family. So far, Smith and his parents have gone to four towns with the rabbits to help grieving community members after mass shootings.
"They're God's bunnies and we just take care of them," Smith explains. "They spend this slow, unhurried time with people. Not one thing can heal a broken heart, but the rabbits being together with them helps — they can express their feelings."
Peacebunny Island: The Extraordinary Journey of a Boy and His Comfort Rabbits, and How They're Teaching Us about Hope and Kindness is on sale now.
For more information, visit PeacebunnyIsland.com.
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