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New vote may let boy with autism keep therapy chickens 

Dec. 12, 2013 at 10:15 AM ET

The little boy with autism who adores chickens might get to keep his beloved birds after all.

Earlier this month, the city of DeBary, Fla., voted to end a one-year “Urban Chicken Pilot Program” that allowed the family of 3-year-old J.J. Hart to keep chickens in their backyard.

The decision devastated his parents, who say the feathered creatures did what physical, occupational and speech therapies couldn’t: Bring J.J. out of his shell.

Now, the City Council has scheduled a vote Dec. 18 on a resolution that would let J.J.’s family keep the hens as a reasonable accommodation under the Federal and Florida Fair Housing Acts. The resolution notes that the toddler has “benefited from his interaction with the chickens.”

DeBary Mayor Bob Garcia, who knows the Hart family well, says he can't predict how the vote will go, but it’s his big hope that the resolution will be unanimously approved.

“I love J.J. as if he was my own,” Garcia told TODAY Moms.

“The chickens actually work for him. I’ve held that baby in my arms before this and he used to bang his head up against my chest and it’s remarkable to see how this baby has in a year-and-a-half moved so much further. He’s so much calmer. He doesn’t bang his head anymore, he’s more relaxed, he’s putting words together now. It’s really, really surprised me.”

Video: After years of therapy for J.J. Hart, a 3-year-old boy diagnosed with autism from Debary, Fla., his parents finally found a way for him to connect to the world with the help of chickens. Now the couple is fighting to keep the chickens, and maintain the progress their son has made, after local officials ruled they were violating a city ordinance.

The boy’s parents, Ashleigh and Joe Hart, say their son used to stare off into space, barely speak and have temper tantrums. The Harts wanted to try a more natural diet for J.J., so they bought a few chickens to add fresh eggs. For some reason, J.J. connected with the feathered creatures. He likes to run after them and hold them, and he smiles when they are around.

“As unconventional as that sounds -- and I know it does, because we're not chicken people -- it worked for him,” his mom said.

“He's got a great personality now. He's got a personality we never thought we'd see.”

Like many communities, DeBary limits the kinds of animals that can be kept in residential homes. City Council member Nick Koval said the decision to end the “Urban Chicken Pilot Program” was not about J.J., but about the chickens.

“It's unfortunate, and I sympathize," Koval told The Orlando Sentinel. "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."

When the City Council voted that chickens would no longer be allowed in residential areas after Dec. 31, effectively ending J.J.’s unusual pet therapy, Garcia said his office was flooded by so many emails that his computer crashed. He estimated 99 percent of the messages and phone calls were in favor of letting J.J. keep his birds.

He hopes the small town near Orlando – population 19,324 – will approve the new resolution to “show that we do have compassion,” Garcia said.

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