By Catherine Cheng, AKOM Editor
Caleb Smith is the founder of STEM Bunnies, a nonprofit that saves and breeds rabbits. It helps people make informed decisions about adopting a bunny through foster programs and camps. At the same time, it also places bunnies in schools where they are used as part of an eight week curriculum that reinforces STEM concepts. Read on to find out more about Caleb and his amazing STEM Bunnies.
AK: What inspired you to found STEM Bunnies?
CS: I was looking online with my parents to get a pet rabbit after my very special bunny Snickers died. Rather than just making a quick choice, I checked with different rescues over a couple months. I saw that there were 362 rabbits available in Minnesota between Easter and August and that made my heart break. What started as a spreadsheet exercise to chart available bunnies turned into a big question – why are people not keeping their rabbits? Could I save some? Could I change this? Could I prevent rabbits from being abandoned?
My chart started to show some trends. People often got rabbits on impulse without knowing much about them and with very unfair expectations. We host Bunny Boot Camp to teach how to take care of rabbits and what to expect and provide a curriculum for ongoing learning. People would discovere allergies to either the rabbit or the hay. So we created a foster program to “check out” a rabbit like a library book with the cage, food and supplies for two months. If after fostering they fall in love with the rabbit and are willing to commit to 10 years of rabbit ownership, we will sell them a rabbit or help them connect with other breeders. But we take the impulse cuteness “gotta have one” option away if they work with us. We needed it to be more than just a foster program; we needed teachers to do our marketing for us and for parents to see us as more than a cute pet option. So we worked with teachers to create the science curriculum.
AK: What makes bunnies special?
CS: They are sweet, they are quiet but say a lot with their body so you really need to “listen” and pay attention. They each have different personalities – some are great agility course competitors, others like to snuggle, others are busy-bodies that enjoy exploring. I like how they bond with me and come to me when they see me coming or hear me talking. They are amazing creatures and with such a fast reproduction cycle we’re always raising babies. I think a lot of people had a rabbit as a kid so they also represent something from an adult’s past and good memories. We have the super fluffy angoras too. We specialize in the endangered breeds so they are all very unique and it’s fun to showcase the wide biodiversity of rabbits.
AK: Why is bunny abandoning a problem in the United States and how does your program aim to change that?
CS: We give people their bunny-fix without them needing to bring one home and discover it wasn’t a good fit. We let people try it out first and then guilt-freely give it back. Families get to find out if they are ready for ANY pet, and then specifically a rabbit and then THAT one rabbit. It takes out the guesswork about what to buy and keeps rabbit ownership from being about consuming things and just buying it like you would a toy. Pets also shouldn’t be given to a kid or as a gift, and no one should get a rabbit or animal for holidays. I get it – rabbits are soooo cute and when you see one you want one. But good intentions don’t always work out. So we aim to help people make a more informed decision.
I was so excited last Easter when several hundred people came to our bunny events and thanked us for sharing the bunnies with them. I was even more excited to get emails from families who thanked us for helping them realize that they shouldn’t get a rabbit. SCORE!
AK: How have you integrated STEM education with bunny fostering? What do you hope to achieve by reaching out to children using bunnies?
CS: We wanted to be more than a petting zoo. We wanted kids to learn things. And it started with me writing down all the things I thought were cool about the rabbits, questions that popped into my head, and then finding their answers. I had no idea that rabbits could have babies every few weeks and that all mammals with eyes on the side of their heads were herbivores (eat grass).
It’s fun to share these facts and you know what I discovered? These cool things were science related and might appeal to kids who might not normally think that they would like science or math. Some kids aren’t into Legos or robots or crayfish, but who doesn’t like bunnies?! Bunnies open the doors for a lot of kids who didn’t think of themselves as good at science. It’s STEM in a cute, fuzzy package. We provide an 8 week curriculum for kids to do on their grade level that goes along with state standards. Kids are doing math problems to figure out how much food to buy. They are designing cages. They are asking questions and figuring out ways to find the answers. It’s hands-on, minds-on learning.
AK: Through your program, you also hope to encourage healthy eating. How have you achieved this goal? What do you think the solution is to this health problem?
CS: Going to healthy eating camp or Diabetes Prevention camp just sounds horrible. But we invite kids to bunny camp and we include lessons about making good food choices and portion control and limiting snacks because of how this helps a bunny live longer, feel healthier, and have energy to play. We focus on being active, playing outside, drinking enough water, and how these things are good for our pets.
It’s not finger pointing or talking about body shape. Rabbits come in all sizes, colors, shapes, and hair styles – so do kids. A lean rabbit isn’t necessarily healthy so it’s not necessarily about looks.
We took the Diabetes Prevention Plan and made it kid friendly with lots of STEM concepts. That’s the extra bonus of our activities. It reinforces what we know we should be doing for our pets and for ourselves. The CDC has predicted that one in three kids born after year 2000 will develop Type 2 Diabetes in their lifetime and that’s my generation! Rabbits can get diabetes too from the same causes. We need to not just eat what we want to, or as much as we want to. The bunnies showed me that if we take more responsibility for what we’re putting into our bodies and we could be the healthiest generation to come.
AK: What has been the most challenging part of your journey and how have you overcome this challenge?
CS: I have so many ideas and staying focused is pretty hard. We started with a few bunnies and that led to egg hunts and birthday parties. Then we added school programs with a curriculum. Now we use angora rabbits for making mittens and selling manure to organic farms.
I’m really glad to be surrounded by really caring adults who help me manage my time, my expectations, and help me do a better job with what I’m working on. My Grandma says “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” so we take time to weigh options. We don’t have enough hours in the day, enough money, enough space, and enough volunteers to do everything. So rather than reacting, we made a strategic plan to make sure we’re using our resources wisely.
We can’t go to every event so we have some tough decisions. But the hardest thing ever is saying no to someone who has another rabbit they want to donate to our program. We simply can’t take in all of them and it’s hard to turn one down. So we do what we can and all of us need to be reminded that we don’t have to do it all, but we can do something.
AK: Raising so many bunnies is a hard job! How do you manage STEM Bunnies while still keeping up with school and other activities? Who helps you with your program?
CS: Because my family is in charge of the schedule, we commit to things that don’t double up with other events I want to go to, like a Boy Scout camp out or church event. We look at the calendar three months in advance and determine how many paid events we need to attend to pay for rabbit food and expenses, and then choose to accept invitations to attend events with our bunnies. We also need to make sure that the bunnies get plenty of breaks just like the kids in our program.
After attending Bunny Boot Camp, you are eligible to help at events and after you answer questions to complete strangers, you start to get some confidence. Before you know it people are volunteering again and again because it’s fun to teach others and raise money for the bunny’s care. All the families in STEM bunnies are so kind and fun. We have a lot of fun.
AK: You’ve recently participated in the Minnesota State Fair rabbit competition. Tell us a little bit about the experience and how it affected you.
CS: Because we specialize in the heritage breeds that are endangered, we brought just a small sample of our rabbits to showcase these special breeds that will go extinct if people don’t intentionally breed and raise them. We brought 16 rabbits and spent each day by their cages teaching people about rabbit care, answering questions and introducing STEM Bunnies programs. So few people had ever seen these kinds of rabbits and they kept taking photos and posted a lot online to share with their friends. It was a big confirmation that we’re doing something that people think is good.
AK: Please share with us your most memorable or meaningful experience since starting STEM Bunnies.
CS: That’s so hard because it’s all over the place.
I love nuzzling with baby bunnies and being the first face they see when they open their eyes.
I like seeing kids light up when they learn something new and I like seeing their parents beaming too as they share this moment together.
I think it’s cool when someone attends Bunny Boot Camp and then in just a few weeks is teaching someone else what they learned.
I love trekking with my parents and the bunnies to other events and sharing that special just-us family time in the car.
It makes my heart warm when someone who is going through a really rough time just sits and holds one of our bunnies and something heals on the inside.
I feel my eyes sparkle when I show up at a birthday party with bunnies and make their special day simply amazing.
And it’s hilarious to see people’s jaw drop when they meet Wachamacallit, one of our angora rabbits. “Is that a yorkie dog? An Ewok? What is it….oh my it IS A RABBIT!!!”
Everywhere I go, I bring joy and somehow the bunnies bring out the best in me and in the people they meet. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
Recently I went to the Forbes Under 30 Summit and I could tell that it really inspired some adults to keep up the good work when they see how an 11 year old is running a business too. That has opened up some opportunities to me that I could only imagine. So the best is yet to come.