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City Says No To Boy’s Therapy Chickens


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J.J. Hart is a 3-year-old with autism and dirty-blond hair who loves to kick balls and chase pet chickens around the backyard of his family’s DeBary, Fla. home.

That’s a big change from nearly two years ago, his parents say, when J.J. stared off into space, barely spoke and threw temper tantrums.

The Harts say it’s all because of three hens — which J.J. called “ducks” — that the Harts brought home for their son to help with his autism.

“He’s now doing amazing,” said his mother, Ashleigh Hart. “He’s now going to a new preschool, and he’s able to communicate much better. And it all has to do with the chickens. He plays with them. He cuddles with them. And he runs around the yard with them. … It’s made a tremendous difference.”

But the Harts are now faced with a choice: Get rid of their chickens or leave DeBary.

That’s because City Council members recently decided to end a one-year trial program on Dec. 31 that allowed residents to keep chickens in backyard coops.

“We’re really not sure what we’re going to do now,” said Joe Hart, J.J.’s father. “He was doing so well with the chickens, and now they’re telling us that we can’t have them anymore.”

The vote against backyard chickens comes at a time when a growing number of Central Florida governments are allowing their residents to build backyard coops to gather fresh eggs from their feathered pets.

Orlando started the first program in May 2012. Apopka and Maitland followed with similar ordinances.

But DeBary Council member Nick Koval defended his decision to end the program, saying chickens don’t belong in residential communities.

“It’s unfortunate, and I sympathize,” Koval said. “But we spend a lot of time and money establishing codes and ordinances for the protection of the citizens and taxpayers of this community. And I believe that they [chickens] belong in agricultural areas.”

Joe Hart said he has hired attorney Mark Nation to find a way to reverse the council’s decision. Nation could not be reached for comment.

The Harts were encouraged back in December 2012, when DeBary enacted a one-year pilot project that allowed families in residential areas to keep up to three chickens.

The council decided on the pilot project after Hart, who had been cited by code enforcement months earlier, asked for permission to keep his chickens. He had bought them after researching animal therapy for children with autism.

DeBary’s pilot program allowing backyard chickens mirrored Orlando’s regulations, including a requirement that chicken owners obtain a city permit.

On average, it costs between $500 and $800 to set up a backyard chicken coop with the correct fencing, Orlando city officials said.

While demand for permits was high in Orlando, DeBary received only two applications for the backyard coops, according to the city. One was from the Harts last year and the other was from a woman who wanted to use her chickens for eggs.

Emily Forrest, a developmental behavioral pediatrician for Florida Hospital for Children who specializes in autism, said dogs and horses are animals more commonly used in therapy for children with autism.

“But in this case, this boy has made a connection with these chickens, and it’s helped him out,” Forrest said. “I think chickens are unconventional, but if a child has made progress, then it’s really sad for him that he has to stop because of a city ordinance.”

Forrest added that children with autism are extremely sensitive to changes in their lives.

“So it could be devastating to him” to lose the chickens, Forrest said.

DeBary Mayor Bob Garcia, who wanted to see the chicken program extended until the end of 2015, said he is disappointed that it had to end.

“It had so many benefits for this child,” Garcia said. “And it would have shown that we’re a community that is compassionate and understanding.”

© 2013 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
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Comments (10 Responses)

  1. Deborah Webb says:

    The chickens should be this young man’s accommodation. City Council members of that town are just going to have to learn to live with the words of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) regarding reasonable accommodations, and I do not see why this accommodation cannot be reasonable. I know there are therapy monkeys and snakes, why not chickens? I hope that Mayor Bob Garcia can speak for this family also. He “gets it.” The family attorney is going to have to be vigilant to make sure the case is not just thrown out of court just because it is an ADA case. This being Florida, I wouldn’t put it past any judge there to try to throw out the case. Hopefully the 2008 amendments to the ADA will make it a lot more difficult for any judge to throw out this case.

  2. VMGILLEN says:

    um, chickens (but not roosters) are allowed in New York City…D. Webb correctly observes this is not a matter of zoning – it’s a matter of the ADA – which is why therapy pets, only, are allowed in City Housing Projects.

  3. Bill Kitchen says:

    Councilman Koval’s misinformed opinion has determined this outcome? Did the mayor and council receive feedback (complaints or support) from other citizans? I have a flock of 4 legal (w/permit) hens in Wichita, KS. None of my neighbors complain at all, in fact some of them enjoy watching the girls as they do what chickens do. It is especially egregious to take away a child’s therapy chickens. Concerned citizens should study and find the facts regarding the positive experience of backyard chickens in the city. I hope the council and mayor are inundated with positive support for for this family. Shame on this council!

  4. Stephanie says:

    Isn’t there something ADA can do to help him keep his chickens

  5. Gail Cammero Reilly says:

    This is an outrage. I am not familiar with this city’s ordinances but in many municipalities, residents can obtain permission for an exception. These chickens function as service animals. Their humane care would be my onky concern. It sound as though they are well-cared for. They provide a connection for this little boy that the City Council rules are putting at risk. What if this child suffers a setback because of a minicipal rule?

  6. Whitney says:

    I am not sure with the laws. Here it is a matter of Zoning. You can have a chickens or farm animals out side of the city limits.

  7. Bill Kitchen says:

    It’s easy to email the mayor and council members on the .org government website for DeBary. I think I’ll cc the Orlando Sentinel opinion editor, too. Let them know directly how you feel about this.

  8. James W. Davenport says:

    This is a medical treatment and should be treated as such

  9. soricobob says:

    I used to live in Florida, and I know the “Rule Nazis” govern the State. How about the chickens living in the house? One room, put in a floor drain, tile floor, enamel walls, extra insulation.

  10. Bill Kitchen says:

    It sounds funny to some, but they sell “diapers” for chickens so people can keep them in their homes.

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