The president of a nationally known rabbit rescue nonprofit has been charged with felony animal cruelty and torture after 47 dead rabbits were found by authorities in a feces-filled Savage barn last week.
Savage police found a chaotic — and tragic — scene when they arrived June 27 to investigate reports of sick and dead rabbits at a barn dubbed "Peacebunny Cottage."
They "saw rabbits running loose in the barn and the smell of death, feces and urine was overwhelming," according to the criminal complaint.
"This is the first time we've ever seen this type of abuse case, where you have a rescue operation that is now doing the opposite," said Scott County Attorney Ron Hocevar. "We're deeply troubled by the actions of the defendant in this case."
Stephanie Hope Smith, 51, of Bloomington, who serves as president of the Peacebunny Foundation, was allegedly on vacation at the time. She agreed that the animals' current condition was "not appropriate" and said most of the loose bunnies were due to be picked up by another group, according to the criminal complaint.
Officers, assisted by an Animal Humane Society vet, returned the next day with a warrant to find hundreds of rabbits of different ages "running loose in the open barn area." Many had burrowed holes in the large piles of manure, the criminal complaint said.
Two rabbits, an adult with a broken back and a baby infested with maggots, were immediately euthanized. Beneath plywood floorboards were many more dead rabbits and body parts in various stages of decomposition. In all, authorities found 47 dead bunnies and 19 in need of immediate attention. Other rabbits were in cages, where almost none had water and several were without food, the complaint said.
Stephanie Smith arrived while police were there, saying she and her husband were CEOs of the nonprofit but the rabbits' owner was her 17-year-old son. The barn's owner was in the process of "redoing the barn" and so the rabbits had been moved recently, "which created a crowding issue," the criminal complaint said.
Caleb Smith, now 18, has written a book and received much media attention — including from People Magazine and NBC's Today Show — for his efforts rescuing bunnies. He's the owner of Peacebunny Island, an isle near mile 832 of the Mississippi River where he takes rabbits to "educate, comfort and earn income," according to a 2019 Star Tribune article.
He's launched a rabbit fostering program, brought bunnies as comfort animals to places of grief and won dozens of blue ribbons showing rabbits at the Minnesota State Fair.
Hocevar said that animal cruelty cases in the county typically involve a common household pet, like a dog.
"These animals were left to fend for themselves with … dirty food, dirty water, not being taken care of," he said. "There was just no way that they could survive in that environment."
The Animal Humane Society is caring for a few of the rabbits. The rest are receiving proper care until they can be relocated, an Animal Humane Society spokesperson said.
Stephanie Smith, who was charged with three gross misdemeanors in addition to the two felonies, will make her first court appearance Aug. 22, Hocevar said, adding that the investigation continues.
Stephanie Smith did not reply to a call for comment, but she and her son addressed the situation on their blog.
"I also apologize to those who have followed our journey … and are feeling deceived or at the very least disappointed and heartbroken that they supported our mission," Caleb Smith wrote in a post dated July 2. "Thank you for providing me a way to share my story and I'm sorry that the last chapter seems so ugly right now."
Caleb said he needed to be "very clear" that the volunteers who came daily to water and feed the rabbits weren't at fault.
In the blog post, Stephanie Smith acknowledged that she was the parent and "legal signer" for the foundation and that it was her responsibility.
Peacebunny is "voluntarily ceasing all public programs", will not schedule any new events "until the legal process is completed" and will donate funds from a planned August "crisis trip" to the community they were going to visit, Stephanie Smith wrote in a July 2 post.
A plan is in the works to oversee the animals' care, she said, adding that perhaps somehow the rabbits could still participate in the State Fair.
She also pledged not to obtain any new rabbits or spend foundation money on her legal defense. No rabbits will live with the family until Caleb turns 20, she wrote, and she will comply with all city, county and state agencies' oversight.