Nonprofit offers animal visits to promote wellness and reduce stress.
With their ultra-soft fur and adorably twitchy noses, it’s pretty hard to resist the allure of bunnies. Jennifer Smith learned this firsthand when she purchased a rabbit for her children on a whim. “I was passing by a pet shop in Excelsior when I saw [the rabbit],” Smith says. “Piper had a calico face. I took her home on impulse.”
Piper quickly became a part of the family, and Smith just as quickly became amazed at what a bunny could do—so much so that it inspired the next chapter in her life. “I realized how intelligent they are,” she says. “Bunnies are so smart, so trainable. They have the most delightful personalities and quirks.”
Smith started taking Piper to agility classes, and it was there that she was introduced to a companion animal group. Before she knew it, Smith was toting Piper to her first skilled nursing facility to visit with residents. That was soon followed by a homeless shelter, where children were encouraged to practice their reading skills with the rabbit.
“It was such a great way to live in love and kindness,” Smith says of taking the rabbit on visits. It was also a great way to help people, who were facing challenges. Smith, who lived in a nursing facility for a time while recuperating from an illness, says she knew, “It’s a hard place to be.” She vowed to make it better.
In 2012, Smith officially founded Bunny Besties, a Minnetonka-based nonprofit dedicated to providing impactful animal-assisted interactions (by way of rescue rabbits) to support emotional wellness. “Our rescued rabbits have a unique ability to lower stress of the humans around them and bring joyfulness to those in challenging life transitions,” Smith says.
The nonprofit has 18 rescue rabbits, which undergo hundreds of hours of training over the course of a year before they interact with the public. Together with a 50-member volunteer crew, Smith has served more than 26,000 people in educational settings, homeless shelters, hospices, libraries and senior living locations throughout the Twin Cities, including Woodbury’s Artis Senior Living. “I see the magic happening with kids and seniors,” she says.
Last July, Bunny Besties opened its first location where Smith hopes to add more therapeutic options, including meditation and journaling in addition to running a store to sell supplies with proceeds benefiting the organization. She also hopes the new space will help them increase the number of volunteers. “The more people, the more we can do,” she says.
For visits, Bunny Besties charges service and transportation fees, which go toward animal care and program operations. “We call it ‘bunnies on a budget,’” Smith says. “We’re all run on volunteers’ blood, sweat and tears.”
Donations are needed, and Smith would love to see them increase, so Bunny Besties can continue to expand its offerings. She says, “We’re at the point where this could get bigger—I’d love to see this get bigger.”