The owner of the Scott County barn where dozens of bunnies were found dead says rabbits that bred like, well, rabbits may have overburdened the woman running the bunny rescue operation. An Animal Humane Society investigator also suggests she may have gotten in over her head.
Stephanie Smith, president of the nonprofit Peacebunny Foundation, has been charged with two counts of felony animal cruelty after authorities found 47 dead rabbits in her rented Savage barn June 27 and 28.
She and son Caleb Smith, now 18, started the rescue about five years ago. He wrote a book and received media attention for his efforts training rabbits as "comfort animals." They also own Peacebunny Island, an isle on the Mississippi River where he brings rabbits for visits.
The accusations are a stain on the feel-good Peacebunny story. Many of the baby bunnies who were removed from the farm have not survived, according to rescue officials.
"I think that the Smiths are good people and they have good intentions, but I think their rabbit population became overwhelming," said Bonnie Laabs, who owns the hobby farm and reported conditions to authorities. "I don't think they were being neglectful on purpose."
Laabs and her husband bought the property in April — and inherited Peacebunny's lease, which expires Aug. 12. Laabs, a teacher with St. Paul schools, hopes to soon open an educational farm program on site but worries her venture will be associated with Peacebunny.
Laabs said Peacebunny had always been "very reluctant" to let anyone in the barn because of what they said were biosecurity concerns related to a rabbit virus. She had several conversations with Stephanie Smith about the animals' "standard of care" after finding rabbits dead or running loose in her yard, she said.
When Savage police and humane investigators visited on June 27, they saw "rabbits running loose in the barn and the smell of death, feces and urine was overwhelming," the criminal complaint said.
Laabs said in late July that there were still rabbits in the barn but that she hadn't been inside recently. After the investigation, Stephanie Smith worked 10-hour days to get the barn in shape, Laabs said.
Keith Streff, the Animal Humane Society investigator at the scene , said Smith's correction order said she had to reduce the number of bunnies from over 200 to a manageable number. By her early July inspection, she had 80 to 100 rabbits, Streff said.
She replaced some cages, got new bedding and put most rabbits in hutches or enclosures rather than in the open, Streff said.
Streff said he doesn't know exactly what caused the 47 bunnies to die but guessed it was "an accumulation" of factors, including diet and "improper disease control." Some were living under floor boards, so staff might not have known they were sick.
"It all falls under poor animal husbandry practices," Streff said.
Streff said he's seen many similar cases — and some that were "much, much worse." Many people in animal hoarder situations don't have the skill set Smith has, he said.
"She had a number of things that caught up with her," Streff said. "She was trying to run a professional business and got in over her head."
Rabbits have a one-month gestation period and can become pregnant with another litter within days of giving birth.
Rabbit rescues help with babies
When Savage police arrived in late June, Smith — who had volunteers caring for the rabbits in her absence — said many animals were supposed to have been picked up by another group, Scott County Attorney Ron Hocevar said.
Sixteen newborn bunnies were taken from the barn and placed with local rescue groups. Four are still alive.
Amanda Denzer, director of animal welfare for Minnesota Pocket Pet Rescue, took in 10 orphaned baby bunnies. They arrived at only 3 or 4 days old, giving them a 10 to 20% chance of survival, she said. Three are still alive.
They're now "coffee mug-sized," she said.
Jessica Carmack, a veterinarian and volunteer with the Minnesota Companion Rabbit Society, took in six babies, each a few days old. One fluffy gray female is left.
"She still has some challenges ahead, but we're doing everything we can to help her get through it," Carmack said.
Stephanie Smith was out of state June 27, the day investigators initially showed up. She returned the next day. On the "Peacebunny Island" blog on June 24, Caleb Smith wrote that he was at the American Library Association conference in Washington, D.C. The blog shows a photo of him near the U.S. Capitol holding a brown rabbit.
Caleb Smith's book, "Peacebunny Island: The Extraordinary Journey of a Boy and His Comfort Rabbits, and How They're Teaching Us About Hope and Kindness," has been taken out of print, said Katie Dodillet, public relations director for Tyndale House Publishers.
"We are heartbroken to learn about the troubling allegations of animal neglect," Dodillet said in a statement.
Stephanie Smith's first court appearance is Aug. 22. Efforts to reach her were unsuccessful.