Sharing a love for rabbits

S.T.E.M. Bunnies
Markus Bachman, 14, of Bloomington, holds one of the S.T.E.M. Bunnies inside the Bloomington barn the program uses to house the rabbits when they’re not in foster care or are waiting to give birth. (Sun Current staff photo by Mike Hanks)

They’re not working on a used car lot, but a Bloomington family is passionate in urging people to try before they buy.

Nine-year-old Caleb Smith may live in a suburban neighborhood, but he’s very much a farmer. And at times he’s a teacher. And he’s definitely an advocate, as well as an entrepreneur.

Caleb, with the help of his parents and numerous classmates and neighbors, is a rabbit farmer. As unlikely as the scenario may seem, he’s the ringleader of an operation that not only breeds American rabbits, but loans them out to families interested in caring for one, sort of as a test drive for rabbit ownership.

Yes, like a library book, families can literally check out a rabbit and return it after two months. “When the novelty wears off, they turn them back in,” according to Caleb’s mother, Stephanie. In some cases, they “turn them in gleefully, without any guilt,” she added.

The enterprise is more than a pet-sharing program, however. It has an educational component, too. Calling their “business” S.T.E.M. Bunnies, Caleb, his parents and numerous volunteers also provide education and training to foster families, families that may or may not become rabbit owners.

Simple beginning

The Smiths wouldn’t have predicted they’d be in the rabbit business two years ago. They were happy simply having a family pet.

Caleb’s pet rabbit “Snickers” died during the summer of 2012. After a period of mourning, the family set out to find a new pet. The Smiths met a breeder that specialized in American rabbits, a breed that has seen a decline in its population in recent years as a result of a rising interest in other breeds. The family decided to buy three rabbits, one male and two female, and help perpetuate the American rabbit breed, Stephanie said.

Knowing how beloved Snickers was by Caleb’s friends and neighbors, Stephanie knew some of those children were interested in having their own pet rabbit. But admiring a neighbor’s pet rabbit and owning one are very different. Rabbits that are properly cared for can live for 10 years, she explained.

There are numerous cases of families purchasing a pet rabbit only to discover after weeks or months of care that the novelty has worn off. The Smiths realized that their breeding of American rabbits could provide a service to families who think they want to have a pet rabbit but have no experience in caring for one.

Caleb was particularly eager to provide rabbits for his friends and neighbors to care for, so the Smiths agreed to move forward with the rabbit-sharing idea so long as Caleb was willing to be an active participant in the daily responsibilities for the herd.

One of the biggest challenges to the breeding plan: Where do you keep a herd of rabbits?

Farm life

Bloomington limits household units to no more than four rabbits six months or older. The Smiths could easily breed their three American rabbits at their Bloomington home so long as they found new homes for the offspring within six months of birth. But that wasn’t a practical solution.

S.T.E.M. Bunnies
Caleb Smith, of Bloomington, holds an Angora rabbit born March 20, one of nine born to “Ginger” and “Westley.” (Sun Current staff photo by Mike Hanks)

The Smiths needed a farm – a legitimate farm – to house their animals. Farms are few and far between in the Twin Cities, but the Smiths knew of one in Bloomington, tucked away along the Minnesota River valley. Spruce Shadows Farm is a working farm, barely beyond the shadows cast by Mall of America. The Smiths contacted the farm regarding their dilemma and soon worked out a deal to use a portion of an old farm building for the hutches that would house the growing population.

“They were very gracious to allow us to do it,” Stephanie said.

Providing food and fresh water for the rabbits is a daily routine, and Caleb often participates in the daily trek to the farm. It’s not uncommon for him to be accompanied by brothers Markus and Noah Bachman, neighbors of the Smiths.

Markus, 14, and Noah, 8, visit the farm regularly to help with the daily ritual. Noah has taken a liking to the laborious tasks associated with raising rabbits on the farm. Markus is the scientist of the group, according to his mother, Deb. From watching programs on Animal Planet to caring for a cat while neighbors are on vacation, Markus has long had a fascination with the animal kingdom, and his hands-on role in caring for the S.T.E.M. Bunnies has inspired him to study the species extensively, according to his mother. Beyond his role in helping care for the rabbits, Markus is also showing rabbits through his local 4H club, she noted.

Education 

When a family agrees to foster a rabbit, a representative of S.T.E.M. Bunnies spends an hour teaching the foster family about how to care for the rabbit. From climate control to feeding, there are many considerations a family needs to take into account in order to care for a rabbit, Stephanie explained.

Angora bunnies nestle for warmth inside a box during an Easter event at Augsburg Park in Richfield Saturday, April 12. (Sun Current staff photo by Mike Hanks)
Angora bunnies nestle for warmth inside a box during an Easter event at Augsburg Park in Richfield Saturday, April 12. (Sun Current staff photo by Mike Hanks)

After eight weeks, most foster families are ready to return the rabbit If a family decides it wants to buy a rabbit, the Smiths will help them determine and find the rabbit they’re interested in buying. If they want to buy the American rabbit they provided foster care to, they’re allowed to do so. If the family is looking for a different animal, the Smiths will steer the family toward a reputable breeder, according to Stephanie.

Most families learn about the program by word of mouth. The volunteers that run the program, however, also bring their rabbits to community events, such as Easter egg hunts. Those events provide Caleb and other volunteers a chance to share their knowledge and love of rabbits with other children, Stephanie said. And occasionally the organization is asked to bring the rabbits to a special event, such as a birthday party, she noted.

Beyond educating foster families about how to care for a rabbit, there’s a curriculum that the Smiths have developed to provide scientific elements to caring for the rabbits, such as weighing and measuring the rabbits as they grow, documenting the results and maintaining a journal of experiences with the rabbit, Stephanie explained.

S.T.E.M. Bunnies is not a formal nonprofit organization, but it’s not a for-profit endeavor. Rabbit food is provided to foster families when they pick up a rabbit, and donations are welcome to help sustain the program, but they’re not required. Likewise, donations are requested when the rabbits are invited to a public or private event, although there are no set fees.

“The money works itself out,” Stephanie said.

Information about the program is available through the organization’s blog, which features content produced by Caleb, at stembunnies.blogspot.com.

S.T.E.M. Bunnies
Deb Bachman, a volunteer for S.T.E.M. Bunnies, holds an angora bunny for Landon Johnson of Richfield to observe at an Easter-themed event at Augsburg Park in Richfield Saturday, April 12. (Sun Current staff photo by Andrew Wig)