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4-H clover Hennepin County 4-H teen takes action to protect Minnesota’s endangered rabbit population

Caleb and a rabbit.

Sharing hugs, hope and hoppiness is Peacebunny Island's  motto. Caleb Smith is the founder and CEO of Peacebunny Island, which rescues and trains rabbits for human companionship and mental health support. It was a single American Blue rabbit named Paxton Peacebunny who started 8 year-old Caleb on this journey. This 4-H teen from Hennepin County, in collaboration with various volunteers of all ages, fosters and shares comfort rabbits each year across the country. But a deadly virus threatens the health of all hares and rabbits, both domestic and wild.

What is Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease?

Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease emerged in Europe and in the 1980s, a new strain of the virus was detected in China in rabbits imported from Germany. Since then, RHDV2 has spread to many other countries and most recently to the United States.  Last year, confirmed cases were found in both wild and domestic rabbits across 10 western states and it’s spreading. The presence and growing threat of the virus has motivated Caleb to raise awareness through PeaceBunny’s website and a national book tour. He is hoping to teach prevention strategies, starting in Minnesota and the northern regions of the country, trying to get ahead of the outbreak.

Preventing the preventable

Rabbit in the woods.

“Preparedness is key to slowing the spread of this virus,” said Caleb, who has been leading efforts to train owners, breeders and other rabbit enthusiasts.  He ’s also hoping to raise awareness to vacationers who could accidentally pick up and spread the virus on their clothing, shoes or personal belongings when returning home.  “Educating people is crucial. The risk of disease spread is especially strong during the warmer months when we have fairs and other events when rabbits could interact with each other.”  Hikers and hunters could also transfer the virus across large outdoor areas.

The RHDV2 vaccines may only be given in states where a current outbreak is documented. The vaccine must be imported from Europe, so biosecurity measures that prevent cross-contamination and exposure are the primary tools for halting this deadly disease. “Switching your shoes before entering different rabbit enclosures and limiting contact between rabbits are wise strategies,” said Caleb. He also encourages following the prevention strategy checklist and rabbit travel restriction presented by the American Rabbit Breeders Association and the MN Board of Animal Health, which is summarized on the Peacebunny Foundation RHDV2 website.

After more than a year of living in a pandemic, we know all too well about how an unprecedented virus can harm a community. Implementing strategies to slow the spread of any virus keeps more people and animals healthy. While the rest of the world is understandably focused on COVID-19, Caleb and the Peacebunny Foundation, veterinarians, rabbit organizations and individual owners are increasingly busy networking, planning and mobilizing to prevent the preventable.

Caleb still has two years of high school left, but is already making plans for the future of Peacebunny Island. “I think that a college education in business would be helpful, and my family and company have committed to caring for these rabbits while I’m pursuing higher education.”

Are you excited to learn more? Get hoppin’ on your own 4-H Rabbit Project!

Learn more about RHDV2 from the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Related topics: 4-H YD News Youth Featured news
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