Parents fight to keep chickens for son with autism

The parents of a toddler with autism are devastated and vowing to fight their community’s decision to ban residents from raising backyard chickens.

Ashleigh and Joe Hart say their son J.J. used to stare off into space, barely speak and have temper tantrums. The boy had to undergo physical, occupational and speech therapies – all with limited success.

But then something remarkable happened, thanks to the chickens. The Harts wanted to try a more natural diet for J.J., so they bought a few chickens to add fresh eggs to their meals. For some reason, J.J. connected with the feathered creatures. He likes to run after them and hold them, and he smiles when he’s around his beloved birds.

“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.”

The Harts live in DeBary, Fla., a small town near Orlando. Like many communities, DeBary limits the kinds of animals that can be kept in residential homes. Last year, after the family asked the city council to let them keep their chickens, the community agreed to adopt a one-year “Urban Chicken Pilot Program” that allowed residents to keep chickens in their backyard.

But last week, the city decided to end the program, so the Harts can only keep the birds until Dec. 31.

DeBary Council member Nick Koval said the decision 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."

Not everyone in city government agreed. DeBary Mayor Bob Garcia said he was disappointed that the pilot program ended. Many people are also criticizing the decision on the city's Facebook page.

Meanwhile, J.J.’s parents have hired an attorney to figure out how they can let the boy keep his feathered friends, according to the newspaper.

“People can support us or they can criticize, that's fine, but we know what we're doing was best for our son, and we're going to fight for him,” Ashleigh Hart said.

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