After ruling that a 3-year-old autistic boy, J.J. Hart, could not keep his three chickens, the city of DeBary, Florida, has reversed its decision. It’s a huge relief for J.J. and his parents, Joe and Ashleigh Hart.
J.J.’s parents had gotten the chickens after learning about how other autistic children had benefited from having service dogs and other animals. Thanks to the chickens, the Harts say that J.J. went from being a boy who stared off into space and barely spoke at all to one who attends preschool and can communicate “much better.” As his mother enthuses, J.J. is
“…now doing amazing…. 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.”
The DeBary City Council’s initial ruling that J.J. could not keep the three chickens he calls “ducks” was devastating to the Harts. But as of December 11, the council says that it will vote on December 18 on a resolution to make a special accommodation for the Harts to keep three chickens because of J.J.’s disability.
Dispute Over a Backyard Chicken Coop
When the Harts first kept the chickens in a backyard coop, they were cited for violating the municipal code. The chickens were said to be a “public nuisance” and illegal because “livestock/farm animals are not permitted in single-family residential zoning.”
The DeBary City Council ended up creating a one-year pilot program to allow residents to keep backyard coops. Last week, the council decided not to extend the program after December 31. One city council member, Nick Koval, argued that DeBary is a residential rather than an agricultural community; he had previously said that the chickens could spread spread salmonella.
While neighbors said they were not bothered by the chickens, not everyone in DeBary welcomed them. In October of 2012, they discovered that four of the chickens they kept in their backyard had been beheaded. While a police investigation concluded that an animal was responsible for the chickens’ deaths, the Harts were not so sure.
Actually, quite a few communities in Florida have been letting people build backyard coops for chickens (who, besides providing eggs, can help to make compost and provide other benefits). Orlando was the first to have such a program; Key West, St. Petersburg, Lakeland and Miami have all also passed urban chicken ordinances.
The DeBary City Council changed its mind about the Harts’ chickens after their’ lawyer, Mark Nation, said that not allowing the backyard coop would violate J.J.’s rights under the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act. As Nation said, J.J. specifically needs the chickens as an accommodation for his disability.
Animals and Autistic Individuals
While noting that it is somewhat “unconventional” to keep chickens to help an autistic child, Emily Forrest, a developmental behavioral pediatrician for Florida Hospital for Children, comments that “in this case, this boy has made a connection with these chickens, and it’s helped him out.” Dogs and horses are animals that are much more commonly used to assist autistic children.
Many families have noted that service dogs have greatly helped their autistic children in managing difficult behaviors and in increasing social interactions. Talking and otherwise communicating are often extremely difficult for autistic kids and service dogs can play a special role in helping them with these. It is not that autistic individuals don’t want to interact with others. Linking words to their thoughts, wishes and feelings may be extra challenging due to, as some recent research suggests, their neurological “wiring” or “brain architecture.” Dogs trained to assist autistic children can be especially attuned to non-verbal communications (such as body language) and help them to calm and deal with anxiety.
Families have found service dogs to be so helpful for their children’s day-to-day functioning that they have sought to have a dog accompany a child to school. Some school districts have objected. Service dogs are allowed in classrooms under the ADA; one family in Ohio, the Gretzes, was recently able to work out a compromise with their school district to allow their 6-year-old autistic daughter, Shyanna,to attend a public school special education program accompanied by her service dog, Spring.
J.J.’s chickens will not, of course, be attending preschool with him. But now when he needs to de-stress, they’ll be there for him, in his own backyard.
Photo from Thinkstock