The owner of the Scott County barn, where dozens of dead rabbits were found, says the rabbits raised like rabbits may have overburdened the woman running the rabbit rescue. An investigator with the Humane Society suggests that she may have entered over her head.
Stephanie Smith, president of the nonprofit Peace Bunny, was charged with two counts of animal cruelty after authorities found 47 dead rabbits in her Savage barn on June 27 and 28.
She and her son Caleb Smith, now 18, started the rescue about five years ago. He wrote a book and gained media attention for his efforts to train rabbits as “comfort animals.” They also own Peacebunny Island, an island on the Mississippi River where he brings rabbits for visits.
The accusations are a disgrace to the peace story. According to rescue officials, many of the baby rabbits that were taken out of the farm did not survive.
“I think the Smiths are good people with good intentions, but I think their rabbit numbers have become overwhelming,” said Bonnie Labs, who owns the hobby farm and has reported the conditions to authorities. “I don’t think they were intentionally ignoring.”
Labs and her husband bought the property in April — they inherited a Peacebunny lease, which expires on August 12.
Labs said Peacebunny has always been “very reluctant” to let anyone into the coop due to what they said were biosecurity concerns related to the rabbit virus. She said she had several conversations with Stephanie Smith about the “standard of care” for the animals after rabbits were found dead or loose in her yard.
The criminal lawsuit said that when Savage police and humane investigators visited on June 27, they saw “rabbits spitting in the barn and the smell of death, feces and urine was overwhelming.”
Labs said in late July that there were still rabbits in the barn but that they hadn’t been inside recently. After the investigation, Labs said, Stephanie Smith worked 10 hours a day to get the barn ready.
Keith Streiff, a Humane Society animal investigator at the scene, said Smith’s correction order said she should reduce the rabbit population from more than 200 to a manageable number. By the time of her inspection in early July, Streiff said, she had 80 to 100 rabbits.
Strive said she replaced some of the cages, got new bedding and put most rabbits in cages or sheds rather than out in the open.
Streiff said he didn’t know exactly what caused the 47 rabbits’ deaths, but guessed it was an “accumulation” of factors, including diet and “improper disease control.” Some were living under the floorboards, so the staff probably didn’t know they were sick.
“It all falls under bad animal husbandry practices,” Strive said.
Streiff said he’s seen many similar cases — some of which were “much worse.” He said that many people in animal hoarding situations don’t have the skill set that Smith does.
“She had a number of things that caught her eye,” Striff said. “She was trying to run a professional business and she got over her head.”
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Ron Hocivar, a Scott County attorney, said that when Savage Police arrived in late June, Smith — who had volunteers tending to the rabbits in her absence — said another group was supposed to capture several of the animals.
Sixteen newborn rabbits were taken from the barn and placed with local rescue groups. Four are still alive.
Amanda Denzer, director of animal care at Minnesota Pocket Pet Pet Rescue, welcomed 10 orphaned baby rabbits. She said they arrived at just 3 or 4 days old, giving them a 10 to 20% chance of survival. Three are still alive.
She said they are now “the size of a coffee cup.”
Jessica Carmack, a veterinarian and volunteer with the Companion Rabbit Society of Minnesota, welcomed six babies, each a few days old. She remained a fluffy gray female.
“She still has some challenges ahead, but we’re doing everything we can to help her get through,” Carmack said.
Stephanie Smith was out of state on June 27, the day the detectives first showed up. She returned the next day. In the “Peacebunny Island” blog on June 24, Caleb Smith wrote that he was at the American Library Association conference in Washington, DC. The blog shows a photo of him near the US Capitol holding a brown rabbit.
Katie Doudelet, director of public relations at Tyndale House Publishers, said Caleb Smith’s book, Peacebunny Island: The Extraordinary Journey of a Boy and His Cozy Bunnies, and How They Teach Us About Hope and Kindness, has been out of print. .
“We are saddened to learn of disturbing allegations of animal neglect,” Dodelett said in a statement.
Stephanie Smith’s first court appearance was on August 22. Efforts to reach it were unsuccessful.
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