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 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 skilled nursing facility for a time while recuperating an from 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, shelters, hospices, libraries and senior living locations throughout the Twin Cities. “I see the magic happening with kids and seniors,” she says.
Last July, Bunny Besties opened its first location on Highway 7 in Minnetonka. There, 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.”
Barb Short, dimensions (memory care) manager at The Orchards of Minnetonka senior living community, has long witnessed the benefits of the animal program for older adults and welcomes Bunny Besties for monthly visits to The Orchards.
How did you get acquainted with Bunny Besties?
I first became acquainted when I started working in this field in 2015. The group came to York Gardens [Senior Living in Edina] when I was working as an activity assistant there. I loved the idea of a pet therapy group that had rabbits instead of the typical pets. Residents loved them. Short later brought the nonprofit to Crestview [Senior Living in Columbia Heights], where she worked, and then to The Orchards of Minnetonka.
Why did you think residents would benefit from the program?
… [The rabbits] usually don’t produce allergies … and give residents a chance to have a warm living thing on their laps that they can pet … talk to, sing to, etc. … Bunny Besties also has bunnies [that] are great at agility: climbing, running, jumping, etc. The agility course is very entertaining, and the bunnies, [that] are gifted with agility and trained, can really kick up their heels and go. As much of the research shows, the tactile nature of petting is very beneficial but so is the connection to another living thing, as well as [encouraging] the remembrance of having a pet or working with a farm animal. The responsibility and pleasant experience of it stimulates a reminiscing moment in time for residents, which lowers anxiety.
How do residents respond to the visits?
[Residents] are so calm and relaxed when we are finished with the rabbits in the late afternoon. They go to supper with lingering smiles and a quiet, relaxed demeanor. We have family members, who come each month just to see the bunnies themselves and see their loved ones talking to the bunnies … We usually have other staff, who come into memory care to see the bunnies and get a pet in or two while they are here … It’s like a bunny kum ba yah.
“Jennifer is very genuine and cares deeply about this mission. She loves her rabbits and sincerely wants to make a difference in the lives of people, who interact with the bunnies. She is knowledgeable and sensitive to both the rabbits and people.”—Barb Short, The Orchards of Minnetonka